FLORENCE, Italy – Britain is prepared to abide by European Union rules and pay into the bloc’s coffers for two years after leaving the EU in March 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May said Friday in a conciliatory speech intended to revive foundering Brexit talks.
May travelled to Florence, Italy — birthplace of the Renaissance — in hopes of rebooting negotiations with the EU that have stalled over issues including the price the U.K. must pay to leave and the rights of EU citizens in Britain.
With 18 months to go before Britain leaves the EU, Brexit negotiations have made little progress, and the bloc’s senior officials have accused Britain of offering mixed signals and vague proposals. May’s speech was intended to kick-start the process before talks resume next week. But while it was strong on praise for the EU and shred European values, the few concrete details in the speech are far from addressing Brussels’ concerns.
May tried to offer an olive branch to the bloc without incensing members of her own Cabinet — several of whom are pushing for a clean break from the bloc.
And although the speech was directly aimed at the 27 other EU nations, none of their leaders was in the audience to listen to it.
Standing in front of a backdrop reading “Shared History, Shared Challenges, Shared Future,” May said Britain and the EU share “a profound sense of responsibility” to ensure that their parting goes “smoothly and sensibly.”
She urged the EU to be “creative” and forge a new economic relationship not based on any current trade model. She rejected both a free-trade deal like the one Canada has struck with the bloc and Norway-style membership in the EU’s single market, saying neither option would be best for Britain or the bloc.
“Instead, let us be creative as well as practical in designing an ambitious economic partnership which respects the freedoms and principles of the EU, and the wishes of the British people,” May said.
May proposed a transition period of “around two years” after Britain leaves the EU for the two sides to work out the kinks in the final Brexit deal.
“People and businesses – both in the U.K. and in the EU – would benefit from a period to adjust to the new arrangements in a smooth and orderly way,” she said.
May also signalled that the U.K. will pay a Brexit bill for leaving the bloc, saying Britain “will honour commitments we have made.”
The speech came before a new round of Brexit negotiations in Brussels next week.
Britain triggered a two-year countdown to leaving from the EU in March, but negotiations have yielded little progress on key issues such as the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and the amount Britain must pay to settle its financial commitments to the bloc.
EU officials say talks can’t move on to future relations with Britain until key divorce terms — the Irish border, the financial settlement and the rights of EU and British citizens hit by Brexit — have been agreed upon.
Britain, however, wants to begin discussing future links, including trade and security co-operation. British negotiators hope EU leaders will decide at an October meeting that “sufficient progress” has been made on the divorce terms to move talks on to future relations and trade.
So far, the signs are that British hopes are in vain.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Thursday that “there is still today major uncertainty on each of the key issues of the first phase.”
“To make progress, we are waiting for clear commitments from the U.K. on these precise issues,” Barnier told Italian parliamentarians in Rome. He said he would “listen attentively and constructively to Theresa May’s important speech.”
May wanted her speech to break the logjam, but she is hamstrung by deep divisions within her Conservative government. It is split between supports of a clean-break “hard Brexit,” including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to soften the economic impact of Brexit through a long transition period.
On the Brexit bill, May said other EU members need not worry “that they will need to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan as a result of our decision to leave.”
The current EU budget runs until 2020.
She did not cite a figure, and said “some of the claims made on this issue are exaggerated and unhelpful.” Reports of the amount the EU is seeking have gone as high as 100 million euros ($120 million).
Jill Lawless reported from London.