After three rounds of negotiations, Brexit talks have reached an impasse. That is the view of the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and that is why he was not particularly optimistic about Theresa May's speech in Florence on Friday. "The speech shows a willingness to move forward, as time is of the essence," noted Barnier. While the UK prime minister had delivered her much-anticipated address, he said she must now prove her "constructive spirit" and put forth concrete proposals.
May chose the Italian Renaissance city as the backdrop for her speech because of its history as a trading power, according to 10 Downing Street. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Florence was practically the heart of European commerce. Perhaps the prime minister was hoping for a renaissance of her own in UK-EU relations.
"We may be leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe," was the message May conveyed, as she so often has. So does Florence indeed symbolize a European relationship renaissance for the UK? Britain's Guardian newspaper smugly pointed out that the Medici family in Florence abruptly broke off flourishing trade relations with British merchants when Antwerp replaced Britain as the textile trade center 500 years ago.
Brussels hopes for concrete proposals
May took the floor in the picturesque Gothic basilica of Santa Maria Novella accompanied by the main adversaries within her own cabinet - Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who advocates a hard Brexit, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who supports a soft Brexit. The appearance was supposed to signal a united front in negotiations with the Brussels.
EU Brexit negotiator Barnier expressed little interest in the historical backdrop to May's remarks, saying in a statement after the speech that the UK may be able to have access to the single market during a two-year transition period, as proposed by May. But in order to do so, he cautioned, the UK must still meet EU requirements, particularly its financial ones.
No figures for Brexit accounts
May is hoping for a more "creative" approach. She has pledged to fulfill the UK's financial commitments to the bloc until 2020, but has stipulated that her country retain access to the single European market for a transitional period of two years. The condition was immediately rejected in Brussels. EU diplomats point out that the final bill for withdrawal and financial contributions for future relations are two completely different things. May did not mention any figures.
The prime minister is asking the EU for a special kind of trade relationship. Inspired by the Renaissance, she said that if "we open our minds to new thinking and new possibilities, we can forge a better, brighter future for all our peoples." May does not want a deal based on European Economic Area membership, nor does she want a free trade agreement like the one the EU recently negotiated with Canada. She wants something different, but without explaining what it could be. She simply said the details would have to be worked out and that this should not prove to be difficult, as the EU and Britain have exactly the same trade rules at the moment. That is why it is not necessary to apply tariffs after Brexit, May contends.
First divorce, then a new relationship
Once again, Barnier stuck to his mantra of divorce first, special relationship later. The rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU must be regulated. Border policy between Ireland and Northern Ireland must be clarified. And the UK's outstanding accounts must be settled. He said the sooner the two parties agreed on an "orderly" divorce, the sooner they would be able to discuss a future relationship.
Next round looms
On Monday, Barnier and British Brexit negotiator David Davis will meet for the fourth round of talks in Brussels. The deadline for an agreement on the conditions of withdrawal is the end of October. But in Brussels, no one believes that the deadline will be met. A special summit of EU member states without the UK has been slated for the end of October, when 27 member states will evaluate the outcome of the negotiations thus far. Future trade relations will only be discussed if everyone gives the evaluation a satisfactory rating.
May has said she expects the negotiations to begin in a "spirit of partnership." As a precautionary measure, Barnier asked the prime minister to acknowledge the fact that the UK's rights and benefits after leaving the EU would not be equal to those of a member state. Rather coldly, he said the EU would consider London's desire for a transitional period it suited the bloc.Bernd Riegert