May in Florence

Poor* Theresa May. Upstaged in her long-trailed traipse to Florence to talk substantially to the UK media and her own immediate Cabinet colleagues (no-one from the EU actually being there) about her ‘vision’ for the future, firstly by her own Foreign Secretary [firewall] and secondly, and far more importantly, in Rome the day before by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, this was a speech whose prospective import was, as it turned out, far greater than the actual substance.

Apart from the rolling political theme of May’s evident lack of domestic authority amongst her Cabinet and her lack of judgment wrapped up in her (absent) treatment of Johnson’s own, reverse Churchillian, two-fingered salute to her, I doubt that history will be too kind on the Florence speech. Critical assessments abound already, not the least David Allen Green’s erudite Twitter feed, InFact’s own observation of May as flip-flop queen and Michel Barnier’s own measured, polite but oh-so-critical response pointing, essentially, to the all-too-evident reality gap.

Barnier is absolutely correct in observing that May’s speech needs to be turned – and urgently – into substantive negotiating points which the respective teams can tackle in the next, and subsequent, weeks. The obvious point to make is that, six months into a (maximum) two-year negotiating period for exit (which encompasses the time to secure the necessary approvals, including from the European Parliament), this is no time to be (re-)setting out a vision for the future. If the UK needs a two-year extension to the negotiating period, this is symbolic only of its own lack of preparation prior to triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, and the absolutely shambolic domestic political process which has succeeded it. Furthermore, May’s observation that ‘throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union’, and that the EU ‘never felt to us like an integral part of our national story’ was both rude and ignorant. What – never at home despite all the opt-outs which the EU granted the UK, on adopting the Euro, on Schengen and on the European Social Charter? Never at home despite the single market being the singular idea of Lord Cockroft, Thatcher’s own EU Commissioner? Never at home despite the maths of the referendum vote failing to provide any sort of endorsement for such a view? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt less at home in the UK in the period since the referendum – based, substantially, on the petty nationalism that has come to mark our national political discourse, bank checks on immigration status being but the most recent example. If we’d made more effort to integrate, to understand the EU’s political processes and, more so, to involve ourselves in them, such an observation might have been better founded. But, we did not and, therefore, it is not. We never even tried.

More to the critical point, we still have no strategy for Brexit, no graspable endgame. it’s not so much that the UK government isn’t levelling with people on the trade-offs that will be required to make any sort of a purse out of the sow’s ear of Brexit, it’s that – as the TUC’s statement in response correctly observes – we have no realistic negotiating strategy at all. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing.

I wanted, however, to make one critical observation of my own. For a speech whose title was ‘shared history; shared challenges; shared future’, May spent an awful lot of time talking about ‘me’. The section on citizens’ rights – so critical to the lives of so many people here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and so important to the EU’s negotiating agenda – was just 255 words long but featured the pronoun ‘I’ no fewer than nine times, and the pronoun ‘we’ no more than five (and some of those being part of May’s attempt at rhetoric). (Aside of no fewer than three references to ‘I want’, which would have got me short shrift as a child!) In the rest of the speech, May referred to herself in the first person singular no fewer than forty times. An odd thing, don’t you think, in the context of a speech whose text was ‘shared’? And in the context of seeking a deal in the best interests of the UK, not to speak of favours, with the skilled, expert, well-prepared negotiators sat on the other side of the table? Unless, of course, May was indeed using the occasion to rehearse her speech to the Tory Party Conference next month, and to support her ever-declining level of authority in her own Party. But, then again, that is really what Brexit is about, isn’t it: the Tory Party’s own attempt to settle its own internal politics regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Our own domestic politics – and despite the outcome of the election – has become simply subservient to the selfish interests of the Tory party whose packing of House of Commons committees is simply the most obvious symbol of the failure that our democracy has become.

* Sympathy somewhat limited, obviously.

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