Theresa May’s Florence speech is the third important speech, after her Conservative party conference speech and the Lancaster House one where she outlined her Brexit negotiating objectives. May used the Florence speech to resuscitate the Brexit negotiations and request a two-year transitional period and access to the single market. As she said, being in the great city of Florence where the renaissance began, is a fitting place to imagine the future of the UK and its relationship with Europe. 

The location

May arranged her Brexit speech in Florence without any involvement of the host country or invitation. The UK government broke with protocol and arranged the event itself without providing much information to Italian officials. As an official in Florence explained to Politico: “The U.K. government is handling everything in absolute top secret. We do not even know who will attend. So far, the only confirmed guest we are aware of is the mayor of Florence.” The Italian government found out about May’s intention to hold the event last week, and the last-minute decision put more pressure on the British Embassy in Rome.

The Florence church, Santa Maria Novella, is the venue May has picked for her speech. It’s built in the Gothic architectural style, but these days, as the Press Association reported, “the square in front of the basilica is a picture of European unity, with tourists and Italians rubbing shoulders over gelato, Peronis and pasta. And in the mid-15th Century it was the scene of the Council of Florence, gathered to bring about the reunion of the Greek and Latin churches. It will be in that spirit that May seeks to make the first steps towards a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the European Union despite the schism of Brexit.” 

Seeking to reinvigorate the Brexit negotiations, May asked the EU leaders to be more “imaginative and creative,” about Brexit, while presenting her vision of the future relationship between the UK and EU. Apart from the divorce bill, May talked about the border and citizens’ rights, the possibility of a transition period, and the special relationship with the EU27. 

The Speech in detail

Before the speech began, Nigel Farage made sure to set the atmosphere by tweeting: “Bland, grey and dull. And that’s before the speech has even started.”

But May began her speech with optimism about the open possibilities ahead of the UK, highlighting what might be seen as a weird idea, but nonetheless optimistic, that Brexit may help the EU because the UK won’t stand in the way of further integration. She said that the UK wants to be the EU’s “strongest friend and partner.” Jean-Claude Juncker has talked in his State of the Union Address earlier this month, about greater integration and encouraging European Union countries to join the euro. 

She continued her speech stressing the shared European values and how these are today endangered by terrorism, migration, climate change and nuclear weapons. Like her previous speeches, she reiterated the fact that we might be leaving the EU, but we “are not leaving Europe.” The UK, she said, will continue to be a leader in Europe on issues that affect security. 

In this respect, the UK might become a sovereign nation but will continue to work with the EU. She emphasised that Brexit was a democratic decision made by the British people and their desire for direct control. And this was the reason that the UK has never “entirely felt at home being in the EU.” The EU was never “an integral part of our national history,” and that sovereignty will bring the UK great benefits.

In terms of making Brexit work, May considered the EU and the UK profoundly responsible and that both shared a duty to strike a good deal. 

Theresa May proceeded to outline what the government is offering to the EU. She said the UK was willing to promise the ECJ rulings will be taken into account in UK court decisions affecting EU nationals.

As it was mentioned before, May doesn’t want a Norway or Canada model. She said that forcing the UK to choose between an EEA-type model or a Canada-type model would be unimaginative. “We can do so much better than this,” she added.

She stressed that she wants to protect workers’ rights and avoid friction at the border. The EU and the UK are both committed to free trade.

She proposed an alternative legal mechanism to resolve disputes after Brexit, other than the UK courts and the ECJ.

She recommended a new treaty on security and justice and said the “United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security.”

She admitted that the UK will be bound to the EU rules during the two-year implementation period. This means the UK will have access to the EU markets and accept free movement.

Until 2020 the UK will continue to pay into the EU budget, since May didn’t want EU nations to lose out during the budget period up to 2020.

May’s speech shed some light on the transition period, but the government’s position after Brexit remained unclear and vague.

During her Q&A session, she explained that she hoped Brussels would see that she was proposing a strong partnership and that people would respond in a tone of friendship. 

Nigel Farage rushed to complain that the two-year transition “could become many many times more than that.” He also argued that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, didn’t actually want a deal because of his “impossible demands.” From the EU’s perspective, it appears that the Brexiteers don’t want a deal because of their own impossible demands.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson tweeted that the speech was both positive and excellent. Johnson described the speech as “optimistic and dynamic” “and rightly disposes of the Norway option! Forwards!”