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‘Road to Brexit’, a sign of a more mature UK negotiating position?



Simon Usherwood’s morning after the day before thread on Theresa May’s ‘Road to Brexit’ speech.

[This piece was originally written in the format of a Twitter thread and has been minorly edited and corrected.] 



Circumstance meant I didn’t get to indulge in the tweet-fest yesterday afternoon, so I am making a virtue of that and reflect on the impression with a bit more distance.


The run-up.

This speech differed from the Lancaster House or the Florence speeches in that there was less run-up (in time), but a lot more associated activity.

This meant lots of speeches from Cabinet Ministers, after Cabinet discussion. So far, Theresa May had worked with a very small circle, so this opening up is notable.

It reflects how things have moved on in the Article 50 negotiations, in May’s authority, and in the need to keep people involved.


The timing.

I still think the timing stinks. Yes, it is before the European Council (22-23 March), so it was important to set out a view, but letting everyone else get their view in wasn’t helpful.

Even Simon the Stylite’s view — that going last in this round means she can mop up the bits — didn’t really happen. I didn’t read anything in the text that could not have been said a month ago.


The location.

In passing, I’ll note that this was a speech most directed to the European Union, so it is ironic to do it in the UK, when Florence was so UK-focused. It makes me think that fancy locations should be saved for exceedingly obvious situations.


The content.

This is the big one. And for once, there was content to consider.

As several people have noted, in content terms, this speech should have been made a year or more ago. Mapping out basic compromises and indicating areas of activity would have informed the agenda.

However, there is still a lot of waffle. Of the five tests, the only one with any meaning is the first and even that only to extent that Britain should leave the EU (not on what terms though).

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Tests are a popular trope because pretty much any outcome can be fitted to them, so politicians can tick off a big box at the end. But they offer no help during the process.

However, on substance, we are seeing a bit of a collapse of the red lines into a more coherent whole.

The key one is still the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but there is now a recognition (and communication) that to be part of any part of the European Union activity means exposure to the ECJ.

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Of course, the calls for sectoral work has fingerprints of Cabinet colleagues adding stuff in, ironically helping May to advance the soft Brexit agenda she seems to want.

And for me, that is the big message: reading the speech cold, the position is to make as close as possible.

This has been an emergent thread of recent weeks: the potential to diverge, rather than the actual divergence.

It might be that Number 10 think this is a way to square the circle of leaving without too much disruption.

But, as with much clever-clever thinking, it ignores the elephant in the room: the European Union.

As several people have already replied to my comments, it is all well and good that Theresa May is saying what she wants, but the Article 50 is also (and indeed, more) about what the European Union wants.

The reaction so far has been polite, rather than enthused. It is nice to have some details, but it is still a long way from enough.


Particular points of concern exist.

  • Ireland was only briefly mentioned, with no substantive ideas and a language that was not as robust as before. For a governement trying to avoid Option C, that is odd.
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  • The role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) remains very confused. The impression is of a British Government caught in a big semantic trap and looking for some ‘fig-leaf’ mechanism (to which the European Union will respond: “Why bother with a fig-leaf?”)
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  • The 3 baskets thing still doesn’t fly. The European Union could help on this by saying that it means a lot of interlocked blocks of legislation (stop one bit of ‘freedom of movement’ means losing the whole thing), but frankly it runs so counter to how the structure of the EU works that, again, why go down that road?
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Remember that the European Union is currently finalising the Phase 2 mandate for the European Council. The EU27 also haven’t got far in their thinking on the final state, so the upshot might be to be vague.

And this is the final point. The end-state is a bit of a distraction.

For the Article 50 purposes, the key priority is the transition: Get to March 19 with a deal and a framework in which the end-state negotiations can run while things tick over.

The British Government is very much not kicking the sleeping dog of transition (nor are the EU27), as getting that tied down in March’s European Council is a vital task.

Number 10 might well be happy to take the heat on the end-state if it allows getting to the transition deal. There is less time pressure there.

So, to pull it all together...

Theresa May’s ‘Road to Brexit’ speech was at a lower end of what it could have contained, but generally a step towards a more mature negotiating position by Britain. The proof of that will be in whether it carries over to movement with the European Union for March’s European Council.🔷




Embed from Getty Images


(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)


(Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Prime Minister Theresa May and President Emmanuel Macron visited The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 18 January 2018.)


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Associate Dean, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC's 'UK in a Changing Europe' programme.
Guildford, UK. Website

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