After the signing of the Single European Act (which provided many of the foundations of the Single Market) back in February 1986, The Economist described it as a smiling mouse. Well intentioned, they meant, but ultimately diminutive and ineffectual. I think this description is befitting of Theresa May's speech in Florence yesterday.
The content of what she had to say has already been roundly criticised by Brexiteers of all stripes. Oddly it has presented us with a rare occasion in which both hard and soft Brexiteers are united in grief. This has, I think, been because we are left now with even more questions than we had originally. And patience is being severely tested.
I refer to May's speech as a smiling mouse because, although it may have sounded positive in tone, it wasn't pragmatic. It did nothing to break the negotiating stalemate which has been sat in place for a couple of months. It barely addressed the issues that need to be hurdled in order for substantial and speedy progress which trade talks require. Remember, as Michel Barnier pointed out in Rome on Thursday, we have but a year left. Six months will be necessary to ratify an amended treaty.
A two-year transitional phase sounds very much to me like the government may well just have asked the 27 EU member states for an extension to the Article 50 period. It will have virtually the same effect: we will remain inside all European Union initiatives, including the Customs Union, and we will continue to make obligatory budgetary payments. I would add that a transition is not only necessary, because untying ourselves from deep political integration is a tricky business, it may also prove useful in terms of providing the country with economic respite.
The reason why the Prime Minister has not asked for the Article 50 period to be extended is because she has spent many months telling the country that it will have left by March 2019. Of course, it is becoming clearer that this could well be leaving in name only. In fact, I am now certain that there will not be a 'Brexit Day' as such. Transitional arrangements look certain to be a fixture of the country's short-term future, and so determining an exact point at which the country leaves will prove difficult.
Brexiteers are understandably frustrated about this. The one area where I have sympathy with Theresa May is that this isn't entirely her fault. The Brexit can being kicked down the street in many ways represents the inexistence of a plan for a hard Brexit. Being angry at the stalling for the sake of it will not bring us anywhere. And this has been a problem with euroscepticism for yonks: anger at the EU and a desire to leave it, but no real idea of how to get there. We have needed a credible plan but, until Flexcit, haven't been able to come up with the goods.
The characteristic vagueness of May's speech in Florence likely reflects very open divisions which lay within her cabinet. She referred to an implementation period, but it's very unclear as to what this entails. On Thursday evening I appeared on Scotland Tonight and, given the hype which had greeted the speech, I said that I expected clarity in terms of the eventual deal; the Brexit we will eventually arrive at. I now think that will be a question for the Labour Party. May cannot and will not stick around much longer than 2019.
As for my mouse reference, what strikes me most is how little attention was paid in this speech to the current negotiating obstacles lying in the way of progress. The Northern Irish border question, disgracefully ignored for many months now, will prove particularly bothersome given that we are leaving the EU's Customs Union, I now presume in 2021, and no outer portion of the border of a Customs Union is left entirely unpoliced.
There is then the matter of citizen's rights, which ought to have been ironed out in the summer, and the RAL issue, which sees us honour prior financial commitments. This is, if anything, a moral question. We should cough up quickly and get those agreed projects and pensions funded if trade talks are to begin at any stage before 2018 (which isn't looking promising). Time is running out.
These problems are symbolic of government attitude to negotiations ever since Article 50 was invoked. We are trying to cross bridges we see in the distance whilst teetering frighteningly on the one on which we stand. Every position paper published attempts to propose solutions to issues which simply aren't relevant to where we are at. We are jumping the gun and need to redraw our focus towards the three sticking points standing directly in front of us. And if we don't? Well then expect further speeches calling for further periods of transition.