Prime Minister May seems to have chosen Florence for her crucial Brexit speech on Friday for its symbolism as the cradle of the Renaissance. But the city has other associations, too – it endured dark days under the sway of the mad monk Girolamo Savonarola, with his propensity for setting fire to whatever offended him. To draw parallels with Boris Johnson’s latest intervention in the Brexit debate would no doubt be unfair. But May’s task has certainly been complicated by the Foreign Secretary’s calculated attempt to torch any shift to a more conciliatory British negotiating position.
May’s instinct that now is the moment for a game-changing intervention on her part is surely right. The negotiations, with a quarter of the allotted time now consumed, have arrived at a crisis-point. The UK is desperate to get on to talk about future relations – crafting the ‘deep and special relationship’ in economic and security spheres to which they constantly allude. But the Europeans insist that ‘sufficient progress’ must first be made on three key separation issues: citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the settling of the exit bill.
Only on the first of these is agreement within sight. An answer to the Irish conundrum remains obscure; whilst the British have declined to put forward any counter-offer to a predictably inflated European bill. Without the urgent injection of a significant new dynamic there is no way the European heads of government, meeting in October, will green-light the next phase of talks – and the negotiations will move towards a death-spiral of mutual recrimination.
Such a new impulse is not going to come from the European side. Partly, this is the nature of the beast. An organisation which sends its negotiator into action on the basis of a written mandate agreed by all 27 member states negotiates with all the agility of a steam-roller. This is often a strength – witness the EU’s record of success in securing advantageous trade deals for its members. But when David Davis appeals for ‘flexibility and imagination’, he might as well direct that appeal to a super-tanker steering on autopilot.
Besides, the EU has known from the outset that it holds the whip hand in this negotiation. All those Brexiteer assurances about splits amongst the 27, or a revolt of the German car-makers, have been exposed for the fantasies they always were. True, the EU is keen to see the UK ante up some tens of billions, not least to fill the major hole that will otherwise appear in its budget in the two years after Brexit. But it is in no hurry; it is the Brits who are under time pressure, as continuing uncertainty hammers investment, and more and more businesses threaten to decamp.
Besides, the EU has plenty else to worry about; managing the eurozone and migration crises, to name but two. Hence its latest testy response on the Irish issue: ‘You made the problem, you come up with a workable solution’. Brexit matters to the EU, but not as much as it does to the UK.
Indeed, it is from the British side that the first signs of movement have become apparent. As I argued recently, the raft of position papers published over the summer suggest that a year’s crash course in ‘Europe 101’ has brought home to most of the British political class just how fiendishly difficult and time-consuming Brexit will be – and just how much Britain stands to lose from the operation. Hence all the signalling about the need for a lengthy transition period, during which as little as possible will change, and all the speculation about how the money issue might be finessed by paying the British bill in instalments, in exchange for continued access to European markets during the transition.
Such signalling is vital if the Commission and other member states are to be tempted away from their current vision of a post-Brexit UK as just another ‘third country’, to which one of the existing models of relations can be readily applied. It will need a considerable effort of imagination and sympathy on the European side to seriously engage on a bespoke arrangement for the UK going beyond what any other country enjoys.
They do not need to be convinced that this would be in their own interest. But they do need to be convinced that the attempt to get there would be worth the effort – that the Brits are not just angling to ‘have their cake and eat it’. There is also the question of whether the British negotiators can deliver whatever they agree, considering the weakness of the government and the open civil war within the Conservative party.
So as May approaches Florence, the good news is that she does not have to offer the farm to get the negotiations moving down the right track. She just has to put her personal authority behind the signalling – to make it plain that she is indeed ready to conclude on citizens’ rights, that she does want a transition period during which Britain (for all practical purposes) remains within the customs union, and that she is willing to pay appropriately for it. Reports that she will recognise the EU’s budget hole problem by offering to continue the UK contribution at current rates in 2019 and 2020 is encouraging – this would be a good first move. A dash of humility, and the avoidance of any further bluster about not really needing a deal anyway, would not come amiss either.
The bad news is that she must convince EU leaders that that this is settled policy, and something she will, if need be, go to the wall over. Her latest move to transfer the top UK Brexit official into No 10 may be a sign of determination to get a grip. But given her track record and the imminence of the Tory party conference she will be hard put to convey this with conviction. And if she does not, the Johnson sabotage effort will have succeeded, and the outlook for the negotiations and the country’s future will be grim indeed.
Savonarola eventually got his comeuppance – but only after years of mayhem in Florence. Many lives were lost – and a couple of Botticelli canvases went up in his Bonfire of the Vanities. Half a millennium later, May must now find the courage to face down the arsonists in her cabinet.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.