Set-piece speeches suit Theresa May down to a tee, and she has been diligently preparing for her 5,000 word address on Brexit in Florence tomorrow. She briefed her cabinet this morning on its contents, and confounded fears that a minister might storm out in disgust before the press waiting outside. Instead, they were informed by David Gauke that the prime minister had the “backing of all of us”. As if to ram the point home, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson conspicuously left together.
Both men will be in Florence to support the Prime Minister, with the Brexit trinity completed by David Davis, as she speaks in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Its history will spoil Brexit-watchers looking for hidden meanings: the Chancellor might wince on seeing the fresco of the Crucifixion of St Philip, while Mrs May might relish the chance to tell the EU some hard truths in the church where Galileo was first accused of heresy for daring to think differently about the world.
Michel Barnier has promised to listen “constructively” to her Florence speech, although he won’t be doing so in person – as no one from the Commission will be going. Speaking to the Italian Parliament in Rome today, not too far away from Florence, the bloc’s chief negotiator piled on the pressure, declaring that he struggled to understand why there was still “major uncertainty” over the opening issues of the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the so-called Brexit Bill of up to 100 billion euros. He warned that both sides had less than a year to finalise a Brexit deal, in order for it to be ratified by EU parliaments in time, and that no transition was possible without one. Meanwhile, Germany’s EU commissioner suggested on Twitter that talks had “stalled”.
With British negotiators set to dive into their next round of talks next week, how can Mrs May help break the deadlock? Officials have briefed their EU counterparts that Britain could pay the EU €20bn during a two-year transition period as part of a divorce settlement, although she may not say so explicitly, as Nick Timothy suggests in today’s Telegraph that she will “find a new form of words to indicate Britain’s willingness to pay an exit bill”. The BBC reports that she will not indicate an interest in a Canada/Swiss model, suggesting she will strive for a bespoke British one. Yet Monsieur Barnier seems keen to deny Britain a bespoke solution, telling officials in private that “ we are not going to mix up models”.
The talks cannot get onto the question of trade in October if neither side move towards compromise, although an EU official struck a blasé note over that – “ we all know that negotiations don’t usually go according to our time plan, so we will take all the time needed.” European politicians will be increasingly worried if so, judging by Geert Bourgeois and Xavier Bertrand’s disquiet about the EU side’s stubbornness on Newsnight.
As Mrs May prepares to speak in Florence, academic Erica Benner imagines that she will be inspired by its famous resident Machiavelli to “ baffle those [in the EU] who say you lack aims” on Brexit. Michel Barnier paid homage to him too today, quoting his dictum that “Dove c’è una grande volontà, non possono esserci grandi difficoltà. [Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great]. To put it another way, both sides will recognise as they try to make progress that where there is a will, there is a way.
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