The tone of the speech Theresa May will make in Florence will be important © FT montage; PA; Bloomberg
No one is throwing their hat into the air in Berlin. A Germany on the eve of a general election has other things on its mind than Brexit. Theresa May’s Florence speech merited, at best, one cheer from policymakers in the German capital. A glimpse of realism? Yes, but the merest glimpse. The UK prime minister should not expect chancellor Angela Merkel to swing into action on Britain’s behalf.
Germany will leave it to EU negotiating chief Michel Barnier to decide whether Mrs May has said enough to open the door to the next stage of Brexit talks. There are doubts that Mr Barnier will have been convinced. To continental ears, Mrs May’s call for a unique economic partnership sounds suspiciously like another, albeit subtler, attempt for Britain to have its cake and eat it — to retain the privileges but not the responsibilities of EU membership.
The cabinet infighting before the speech did not help. Word has reached Berlin that Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has privately boasted that he had prevented Mrs May from making a more realistic offer — perhaps three years of transition and budget payments. How, European diplomats ask, can they deal seriously with a government in which the foreign secretary might at any moment move to topple the prime minister to further his own career?
German officials contrast dysfunction and discord in London with surprising unity among the 27. Britain had been expected to seek to divide and rule its partners. Instead Mrs May had been preoccupied with the task of trying to unite her own party. Berlin says the EU is still waiting for a realistic account of Britain’s ambitions for the future relationship.
On one thing Ms Merkel is clear: the prime minister should not expect special treatment from Germany. The chancellor wants a fair deal but one that reflects the fact that the advantages of EU membership are not available to outsiders. She has other priorities, not least the need to strike a bargain with France’s Emmanuel Macron to restore the Franco-German partnership.
After Mrs May’s speech, the attention of UK officials is immediately shifting to how the EU will react. There is no automatic expectation that the EU will now make the vital statement that “sufficient progress” has now been made to allow the two sides to proceed to discussing their future trade relationship. One UK official says that Mrs May’s speech is simply enough “to get us on the dance floor”. A lot will now depend on the next round of negotiations next week. The Brits hope that the two sides can now build on the May speech.
However, the EU reaction may be quite cool. The British believe they have made reassuring noises on money, security and citizens’ rights. But the insistence that the UK will leave the customs union means that it will be hard to point to progress on another issue that the EU deems critical: the Irish border.
And then there is the question of tactics. The EU may be tempted simply to play for time, by rejecting the British offer, knowing that the longer the talks drag on, the more Britain is at risk of a cliff-edge Brexit. That in turn could mean that the British become increasingly desperate — and will return later, with a better offer.
An urgent concern for the governments of central and eastern Europe is the protection of the rights of their citizens living in a post-Brexit UK. Theresa May’s speech in Florence offered some reassurances, but lacked sufficient detail to be wholly convincing.
The prime minister suggested that UK courts could, in the future, take into account any European Court of Justice rulings related to citizens’ rights. She also said she wanted EU citizens “to carry on living as before” in the UK. But she made no specific promises on access to UK state benefits, or on how new entry and registration systems for migrants might work.
The region’s governments will welcome Mrs May’s pledge to maintain a strong defence and security partnership with the EU after the UK leaves the bloc. Poland, the Baltic states and Romania are particularly keen to ensure a high level of security co-operation with London after Brexit.
These and other nations in the region regard Nato membership as their primary defence guarantee. But they want the UK, as one of Europe’s leading military powers, to be involved with the EU’s efforts, too. They will appreciate Mrs May’s commitment to close co-operation on counter-terrorism.
Governments will take some comfort from her assurance that the UK will honour the financial commitments it has made as an EU member. Mrs May’s language implied that there will be no threat to the tens of billions of euros that central and eastern Europe have been receiving under the EU’s 2014-2020 budget.
However, the region’s governments will seek more details on what Mrs May is promising after the UK’s expected departure date of March 2019. The legal status of UK financial commitments for 2019 and 2020 is a sticking point in the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the European Commission.