Mrs May does just enough

Abraham Lincoln once observed that “you cannot fool all the people all the time”.  It is equally true that politicians – even successful ones like Angela Merkel – cannot please all of the people all of the time either.  As last Sunday’s German federal election has shown.

Theresa May is not a successful politician.  The most she can hope for these days is to please at least some of the people at least some of the time, though of late, even this seems to have been largely beyond her.  The pressure on her as she went to Florence last Friday to make what was billed as the UK’s “Big Offer” speech to the country’s EU partners was therefore intense.

Compounding her problems were two things.  The first was that her speech had to satisfy multiple audiences, both at home and abroad, all of whom have very different objectives.  Her home audience ranges from those who simply want to leave the EU as soon as and as completely as possible, almost regardless of the consequences, to those who want the UK’s departure to be slower, more controlled and more graceful, to those who don’t really want the UK to leave the EU at all.  And that is just among her close cabinet colleagues.

On the other side of the Channel, she faces political leaders whose attitude ranges from sympathy, to indifference, to irritation if not worse.  Many (and not just Mrs Merkel) have larger issues on their political plates than managing the UK’s departure, all have domestic audiences of their own to keep sweet.

Satisfying all of these various audiences in one speech would have taxed a far better politician and a far better orator than Mrs May.

Her second challenge is that the EU has set her an almost insoluble problem.  The UK has been told it must solve the three key issues of the status of EU-27 citizens in the UK (and UK citizens in the EU-27); the UK’s financial payment as neighbour and trading partner but not member for a multi-year period; and the fraught border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU state). And all three of these points must be addressed and largely resolved in advance of knowing what the relationship between the UK and the EU will be.

Respectively these three demands are unpalatable, unreasonable and impossible.  The first revolves around the supremacy of EU law over UK law as it effects EU citizens in the UK, even after the latter’s departure;  this shows a deep distrust of the British legal system and its ability (or willingness) to police and enforce any final agreement, and is a demand for the extraterritoriality of EU law that exceeds even America’s ambitious self-regard.  It also has uncanny resonances with how Russia tried – and still tries 25 years later – to dictate to the Baltic States and the Ukraine on their treatment of their Russian populations following the end of the Soviet Union.

The second resembles nothing more than a blank cheque for unspecified future access, neither the terms of which nor even its duration have been agreed, which is unreasonable.  And as for the third, without knowing the shape of the future relationship between the EU and the UK in general, it simply is not possible to establish a relationship in detail between the two sides of the Irish border – a new addition to the long list of conundrums that the island of Ireland has posed for its larger neighbour down the centuries.

It is alas no consolation for Mrs May that it is not the first time in the UK’s history that “the Irish Question” has been so complex and difficult to answer, and that neither William Gladstone nor Lloyd George, two titans of British politics, could find a solution during their tenures as prime minister.

If Mrs May was in a stronger position, she and her negotiators could follow her Florence speech with some questions of their own to the EU.  It would, for example, be entirely legitimate for the UK to ask the EU to move beyond the simplistic repeating that they “need more clarity”, and offer more constructive criticism of the UK’s ideas, or even, if the UK’s ideas are not meeting their hopes, for some suggestions of their own.

Equally, since almost any deal is categorically better for the EU than no deal, not least financially, the UK could legitimately ask what the EU is doing on their side to avoid the threat of a breakdown with no deal if the negotiations continue to be bogged down.  It does after all take two to tango, and a negotiation in which one side merely repeats endlessly “not good enough, try harder” has a poor chance of a good outcome, or even any outcome at all.  Successful diplomacy is more than a game of 20 questions where one side can only say yes or no.

And finally, there is the existential question of what is more important for the EU: finding a good solution or preserving their rules?

But of course she cannot ask these questions – and in particular, if she did ask the last of them, alas the answer she would almost certainly get is that the EU is a rules-based organisation not a solution-seeking one, and that in too many continental capitals (not least Berlin), obeying the rules and driving over the cliff is preferred to bending the rules and staying on the cliff-top.

In the circumstances Mrs May’s speech probably did enough to keep the negotiations alive, and even move them forward slightly.  There were positive statements, some new concessions (though details remain thin) and genuine words of goodwill and even flattery for her Italian hosts.  Inevitably the Rent-a-criticism crowd in the EU-27 cried that it was “not enough”, but Mrs May will have noted more the reaction of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator and interlocutor and probably the person the speech was most aimed at:  he was notably less dismissive of the overtures than most and found items, such as the guarantees given to EU citizens in the UK, that he was able to positively welcome.

So, the speech could have been a lot worse.  But the fact remains that talk is cheap, and details are elusive.  The EU’s main concern, and Mrs May’s main weakness, remains first that the lofty ideas and offers have to be translated into concrete plans for action, and secondly that no-one knows whether Mrs May can deliver what she promises.  She is, uniquely, not in control of anything: she does not control her cabinet, the cabinet does not control the Conservative party, the Conservatives do not control the House of Commons, the House of Commons do not control Parliament, and the UK Parliament does not control the negotiations with the EU.

And one speech in the fair city of Florence cannot change that.


A shorter version of this essay was published by OMFIF in their Daily Commentary