The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator and other senior officials welcomed U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech in Florence as a signal of her willingness to move forward in a constructive fashion.
But they strongly criticized her for not providing sufficient clarity on the three main divorce issues: citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Ireland.
In the EU’s official response, chief negotiator Michel Barnier described May’s speech as a welcome expression of a “willingness to move forward” but called for more clarity on virtually every point.
“Prime Minister May’s statements are a step forward but they must now be translated into a precise negotiating position of the U.K. government,” he said, referring to May’s reiteration that EU citizens in Britain would have their rights protected because ECJ rulings would be absorbed into U.K. law and U.K. courts could continue to take ECJ rulings into account after Brexit.
On the Irish border, he said the speech “does not clarify how the U.K. intends to honor its special responsibility for the consequences of its withdrawal for Ireland.”
And on the financial settlement — an area where May made an important, if unavoidable, concession — Barnier said it was far from certain that her offer to keep the EU’s current budget plan whole would be sufficient for the U.K. to meet all of its financial obligations as it leaves the EU.
“We look forward to the United Kingdom’s negotiators explaining the concrete implications of Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech,” Barnier said.
In his statement, Barnier also flashed warning signs over May’s request for a transition period, noting the U.K. would lose its voting rights and decision-making power as a member, but would still be required to obey EU law and meet all other obligations of membership in its single market.
Diplomats said they welcomed May’s assurance that the U.K. would fulfill its obligations to the EU’s current long-term budget plan, which runs through 2020.
“The fact that the government of the United Kingdom recognizes that leaving the European Union means that it cannot keep all the benefits of membership with fewer obligations than the other member states is welcome,” Barnier said, adding: “The EU will continue to insist on sufficient progress in the key areas of the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom before opening discussions on the future relationship. Agreeing on the essential principles in these areas will create the trust that is needed for us to build a future relationship together.”
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni echoed Barnier’s remarks.
Gentiloni — who sent a pointed message by not attending the speech even though it was in Italy — called May’s address “constructive.”
“Now time to put these to the test at the negotiations with the EU,” the Italian prime minister tweeted.
If Barnier was conciliatory but cautious, other EU officials reacted cooly to May’s speech, saying they saw no major breakthrough despite clear concessions on a transition period and a commitment to pay into the EU budget until the end of the current cycle.
Poland’s EU affairs minister, Konrad Szymanski, said in a statement that the financial settlement remained “the real problematic issue that remains to be resolved” and that the EU would agree to talk about a transitional period with the U.K. “only if that could lead to complete fulfillment of U.K.’s commitments.”
“Membership of the UK in the single market as well as the customs union translates into regulatory and financial obligations of the U.K. towards the EU,” Szymanski said.
In the European Parliament, which holds veto power over any withdrawal agreement with the U.K., there was little cheering.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party group, criticized May’s speech and said it would only make the Brexit process harder. “In substance PM May is bringing no more clarity to London’s positions,” Weber tweeted. “I am even more concerned now.”
“Theresa May sounds like Donald Trump,” said Jo Leinen, a German Socialist MEP and member of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee. “May puts national selfishness over jointly agreed decisions in the EU.”
Leinen said May’s proposed future partnership amounted to “nothing more than a veto-right for Great Britain in all decisions,” and a continuation of its “pick-and-choose approach.”
“In other words: London expects a special treatment,” he said.
Senior diplomats working on Brexit had a previously scheduled meeting at the European Council on Friday afternoon, giving them a convenient opportunity to confer about May’s speech. They seemed mostly unimpressed.
“Mostly wordy or unclear,” one senior diplomat told POLITICO. “First and foremost, it now remains to be translated into action by negotiators on Monday. We don’t negotiate on the basis of a speech.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her Brexit speech at the Complesso Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy on September 22, 2017 | Jeff J Mitchell/AFP via Getty Images
Diplomats said they welcomed May’s assurance that the U.K. would fulfill its obligations to the EU’s current long-term budget plan, which runs through 2020. But their enthusiasm was muted because Brussels had never expected this to be a point of debate.
Another diplomat described May’s position on the financial settlement as “limited movement.”
There was generally negative reaction to May’s comments about the European Court of Justice and diplomats dismissed as unrealistic May’s continued demand for a bespoke trade deal.
Other proposals by May, on the U.K.’s own future legislation, on a new security partnership, and on future relations with the EU in general, were rebuffed as simultaneously unclear and irresponsibly premature.
Diplomats complained that May was persisting with the U.K.’s effort to try to fast-forward the future relationship, while giving short shrift to demand in Brussels for clarity on divorce terms.
One diplomat said May appeared to have a fundamental misreading of EU sentiment going forward. “She talks about EU and U.K. as if we are two equal countries wanting a relationship,” the diplomat said. “That’s fundamentally getting it wrong. They are leaving the EU. They are 60 million. We are 450.”