Simon Usherwood

Today’s speech in Florence will not be remembered for its rhetorical flourishes or even for the confused symbolism of its setting, but for its encapsulation of the profound problems that beset the UK’s departure from the European Union.

The Article 50 negotiations have run into the sand in the face of disagreements about sequencing and substance and at first glance Theresa May’s speech looked to be an opportunity to get things back on track. However, at every step, May has been boxed in, to the point that this speech could be little else than a further delay and damage to the process.

The simplest way to understand this is through Robert Putnam’s model of a two-level game. In essence, this seeks to explain behaviour by political agents when operating in two distinct arenas at the same time. In this case, May is not concerned with handling Brexit with European counterparts in the setting of Article 50, but also with her own party.

Putnam argued that in such situations agents have to work within the doubled set of constraints, which can produce outcomes that make relatively little sense if one only considers one level. In particular, Putnam noted how those agents could use one level to lever the other into a position it might not otherwise take.

May finds herself precisely in that position, but with minimal agency of her own. Instead, both the EU and the Conservatives appear to be using her to further their interests.

Consider here the background to this speech, as a good example of this.

Number 10 had originally planned this as a more low-key affair, but first Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead on Article 50, let the cat out of the bagearlier this month. He used this to push – with success – for a delay in the next round of talks. The long lead-in time also allowed Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator for the Commission, to give a speech to the Italian parliament yesterday that set out both the state of play in Article 50 what the Commission would require from today’s speech. By not speaking to that today, she looks haughty and disconnected from the reality of the negotiations. The result is that, as at every other point in Article 50 date, the EU sets the agenda, and the UK looks reactive.

If the EU side used this speech, then so too did the Tories. With a tight-lipped Number 10 refusing to say anything about content, a void was created in which speculation would run wild. That Boris Johnson chose to fill that void with his piece at the weekend should come as no surprise. Whether he was angling for another stab at the leadership of the party, or trying to set up an escape route, he put down a very clear marker about what May could (or rather, couldn’t) say today. The pervading sense remains one of May being kept in post on sufferance, until a challenger decides to ride in on a white charger and rescue the country from the mess over which she has presided.

In short, May has been played by both sides in the run-up to today. The obvious question to ask – given that this was all very predictable – she still went ahead with it? On the basis of what she said, it appears that May is well aware of the problems and is trying to build herself some space for manoeuvre. This can be seen primarily in the offer she made on the different components of the negotiations.

On the Phase I elements – citizens’ rights and the Irish border especially – there was some helpful language on detail, although still not enough to provide clear common ground with the EU, most obviously on the role of the ECJ or the degree to which Northern Ireland can be treated differently from the rest of the UK. Only in financial liabilities was there real movement, with the concession that the UK will commit to paying up on all the things it has already signed up to as a member state: this covers the budgetary planning cycle up to 2020, beyond the end of membership.

By tying the UK much more forcefully to a transition period after leaving, May has provided the start of a way out on the financial question and on the management of the two regulatory regimes. More importantly, it signals a more realist approach by London, aligning with the long-held EU view that the two years of Article 50 was never going to be long enough to put an entirely new relationship in place. May’s language does leave open a longer period, but dressed in the rhetoric that this would be for reasons relating to the implementation of a -as-yet – undecided immigration regime.

Even on the big question of what that new relationship should look like, May offered some conciliatory words, albeit still sticking to the rhetoric of ‘deep and special’ and the need for ‘creativity’. This matters, because without a sense of a destination, it will prove almost impossible to negotiate a path to reaching it.

However, even as May has tried to create space, both levels are moving back in to constrain her once more. Michel Barnier’s immediate response was a little more conciliatory than that from the hot-takes of her party, but neither looks willing to give May a free hand.

In brief, May comes out of today looking no stronger than before. While she has been able to use the time constraint of Article 50 to move her colleagues along, she has done it without reaping any reward from a Commission, not least because she has been unable to frame her rhetoric with an eye to Brussels. Telling the EU that it is their responsibility to resolve Brexit has probably closed the door to any chance that next month’s European Council will deem ‘sufficient progress’ to have been made in negotiations. That means less time to move to discussion of transitions, and less time to reach a deal.

Brexit continues to close in, but on today’s evidence it will not be Theresa May who is the key person in shaping what it looks like.

Simon Usherwood is Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey. He tweets @Usherwood.

Image: Randy Fath