Is anyone out there just as confused as they were before the Florence announcement ? If we were hoping for some clear and precise proposals with some content that addressed the key problems of the Brexit negotiation process then we were all obviously overly optimistic. Mrs May delivered a confident, coherent and even emotional speech to the selected audience (notable for its absence of EU officials) but the theme was always couched in vague and imprecise terms that were wide open to a whole host of interpretations. Maybe we were all hoping for a content that, historically, Mrs May has never chosen to be clear about - she is not well known for being as 'clear' as her repetitive rhetoric suggests.
Yet the outcome of the speech has confirmed a few details that, frankly, we all suspected beforehand. A transitional period after March, 2019, a continuance of our former obligations to the EU bandwagon and, of course, a hefty sum of money continuing to be poured into this bottomless pit. We knew this would be the outcome - and details that are sometimes revealed as unofficial 'leaks' are anything but, for the government wanted advance knowledge of this to be speculated upon so that the impact would be spread over a longer period of time. Do Whitehall mandarins actually believe these little games actually fool anyone ?
The EU response to the announcement was polite but in no way effusive. They still hold to their three tenets of progress - the Irish border question, free movement of labour/EU citizen rights and, perhaps the key item, the divorce settlement - none of which were addressed by Mrs May. Previous posts have talked about the government versus the institution issue of the Brexit negotiations and in this repeated stand-off we again see the difficulty of a sovereign government (that's us) trying to negotiate with a non-elected bureaucracy (the EU) by using traditional diplomatic and political tools. They are the wrong tools to use; the challenge for our negotiators is to recognise that a firmer, more direct and 'leader' style of engagement is necessary to show confidence, strength and will in pursuing the deal that Britain wants. Dancing around the May-Pole and pretending that the key issues between the parties do not need to be addressed is a pure waste of precious time. Mrs May's offer is no more than another diplomatic thrust at an adversary who has no interest in the niceties of inter-governmental gamesmanship and we can fully expect a pretty brusque rejection of any progress until the core issues are hammered out.
Now this begs some other thoughts. Do our negotiators adjust to the tougher but productive style of engagement and tackle the core issues or do we let time slide by and reach a point (predictably) where no deal is going to be struck and we pack up our bags and walk away. Finis ! Two polar extremes, you might say, the former perhaps more supported by Remainers whilst the latter more appealing to the Leavers. Yet some middle ground needs to be created - business needs to continue, new relationships do need to be forged and we do need to remain integral to a range of initiatives in areas like defence, security, scientific research and medical advancements. Above all, however, Britain needs to be sovereign, governed by its own laws and free to trade around the world without compromise. And therein lies the problem. Britain's wish-list is anathema to the EU, a position that they cannot countenance without attempting to make the departure as difficult and painful as possible - because as we do not understand their core concerns, they do not understand ours.
I suspect that the diminishing time allocation before March, 2019 will create the final choice. If intransigence is the negotiating methodology (on both sides) then there will be no satisfactory agreement reached and we will need to walk away, open for business to the rest of the world but not so much Europe. That will be a 'hard' Brexit and businesses should by now be making contingency plans for that possible occurrence, like it or not. Yet that need not be the final outcome - if we learn to negotiate properly and with a fair but firm position. But have we a government that can pull that off ?