I have always said that kicking down the EU door was not the answer to the UK’s dream. Theresa May’s speech in Florence has done nothing to change my mind.
In the beginning, there was Rome – six paths leading away from the city, towards an ever closer union of six warring nations. Then, there was Maastricht, the symbol of a European treaty that no-one voted for. More recently, Lisbon, emblem of the same treaty that no one got a chance to vote for.
Now, there is Florence – the city that took Europe out of the dark-ages into humanism – playing centre stage to another potential milestone in European history. In preparing her speech, Theresa May was undoubtedly influenced by the outward-looking and highly creative Florentine heritage, spurred on by the Roman Humanitas and the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy. It was Protagoras, who said “Man is the measure of all things”. Boldness, openness and creativity, however, to which Theresa May repeatedly referred to, do not economic treaties create. Nor do they curtail immigration, or erase the worries of millions of EU citizens on both sides of the Channel and North Sea.
A Balancing Act
Theresa May claimed that the UK had always felt “uncomfortable” in Europe. She seems to forget that she is the prime minister of a country that 50 years ago begged to be a part of an ever-expanding European Union.
The hard-liners, within her party, were aspiring for the UK to leave without shedding sweat, blood or tears. It appears more and more likely that the UK is to lose a substantial amount of all three.
Theresa May did have a delicate balancing act to carry out, and the speech was more directed at her own party than at the 27 EU member states. She is constantly walking across a tightrope, caught between the ferocious voices of her own Machiavellian hard-liners and the delicate whisper of reason. She reminds me of the tightrope walker in Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, caught between two visions of what it is to be human, only to end up falling into the abyss. Upon arriving in a town, Zarathustra sees him beginning the perilous walk between two towers. He is pursued and mocked by a jester for being so awkward and moving so slowly. The jester jumps over him, causing him to fall to the ground. Zarathustra approaches the dying man, who fears damnation. He thinks that his life has been meaningless and that he has been a mere beast. Not at all, Zarathustra suggests to the dying man: “You have made danger your vocation; there is nothing contemptible in that.” There is no devil and no hell.
Theresa May has smelled the danger coming from both sides of the Channel and is trying to work with it. The EU seems to have acquired its own life and is here to stay, whether you like it or not. It has been transformed from a flat-footed clumsy animal into a gigantic dinosaur needing constant feeding by the tax payers, and incapable of moving anywhere, yet alone forwards. There is nothing citizens in the UK- or the EU for that matter – can do about it. We’ve now gone from Alice in Euroland with Juncker’s delerium over federalism, to Snow White and the Seven Brexiteers – Snow White being the (potentially) beautiful European princess who cannot wake up to reality and change her clothing, and the Brexiteers living in an insignificant house, lost in the middle of a rain forest. Theresa May and the UK want to get out of the way and, just maybe, it’s a valid point to be made.
“There is a vibrant debate going on about the shape of the EU’s institutions and the direction of the Union in the years ahead. We don’t want to stand in the way of that.” –Theresa May
In accepting a transitional period over two years, however, the UK is effectively staying in the EU, in all but name, until 2021, at the very least. This is a far cry from the ferocious outcry of her “hard Brexit” party colleagues, led by Boris Johnson, who advocated leaving the EU with immediate effect and not paying a single Euro for the trouble caused. Theresa May was almost apologetic for the Brexit vote, but she said it was now up to the politicians and negotiators to carry out the wishes of the UK voters. If only we knew what those wishes were and how to implement them.
The only certainty is that Theresa May does not want a deal resembling that obtained by Canada or Norway. This can only mean that the UK is still dreaming of having its EU cake and eating it. Unless, of course, “creativity” transforms EU law and regulations into something completely different.
Bridging the Gap
Bridging the gap between EU membership and Brexit is, for some, a harsh reality, but for large companies and small businesses already entangled in the European web, it is a necessity. Why the UK ever doubted that this would be unavoidable remains a mystery. The two-year period, advocated by the UK, may well turn into half a decade.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under. – F. Nietzsche, And Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Although some EU directives are likely to be modified or scrapped in some distant future, others are here to stay, whether the Brexiteers like it or not. A telling example is that of security cooperation in which unconditional treaties must and will be signed.
There are two other aspects of what will surely be recalled as “The Florence Speech”, namely, the payment of EU contributions and the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the resolution of disputes (surely, there won’t be any of those).
UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, will be remembered for saying that the EU can “go whistle” for any extortionate divorce bill costs. It now seems that the UK, rightly so, will honour its financial commitments in the same way that the EU will. The UK will probably not only have to pay any outstanding bills from now until the day the transitional period ends, but also any contributions that have been already pledged, prior to a, as yet undefined and undisputed, date. Johnson described Theresa May’s speech as “brilliant and optimistic”. Well, I suppose you get what you pay for, and the UK is going to do precisely that.
But by far the most spectacular U-turn pronounced by Theresa May concerns the rights of EU nationals living in the UK and the innumerable disputes that are going to arise from erroneous interpretations of their status. The UK government was adamant – no ECJ.
“So we will take back control of our laws and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain” – Theresa May January 2017
“Where there is uncertainty around underlying EU law, I want the UK courts to be able to take into account the judgments of the European Court of Justice with a view to ensuring consistent interpretation” –Theresa May
I ask myself how are we to trust someone who, consistently, not only changes her mind, but whose statements so obviously contradict each other, and show absolutely no continuity in thought. The UK government considered the ECJ as a persona non grata for the UK judiciary. It was without compromise – a red line that could not be crossed. It now seems that Theresa May and her companions in arms have not only crossed it, but, in doing so, tripped over the wire and bruised an unmentionable part of their anatomy.
Does the UK know what it wants?
Looking back at what was said in Florence, we can only be but disappointed with the content. What started off as a defence of the EU that I could not have said in a better way finished as a loose amalgamation of wishful thinking and vague creativity. I get the distinct impression that the UK does not know what it wants, and even less how to obtain it. I have always said that kicking down the EU door was not the political answer to the UK’s philosophical dream. Theresa May’s speech in the beautiful town of Florence has done nothing to make me change my mind.
It was to be expected that Theresa May’s speech would not teach us anything significantly new. The EU was sticking to its guns concerning UK payments, its openness to a transitional period, and the ECJ. Now we will never know if the EU would have eventually compromised on payments and the ECJ.
Let us not forget the most important, as so pertinently noted by Jeremy Corbyn. It is such a shame that we didn’t even get the chance to see the beauty of Florence.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.