First the good news from British Prime Minister May’s point of view: she survived her appearance at this year’s Conservative Party Conference without any hitches. No coughing fits, no lettering falling down from the wall behind her, no blank letter of dismissal being handed over to her. This last point also applies to her most prominent adversary Boris Johnson. In his speech to the party members, he tore the Prime Minister’s Brexit plans to shreds but evidently did not officially challenge May during the conference. All in all, the party conference was a success for May who came over as self-confident and defiant.
The contents of May’s speech failed to shed any new light on the theme of Brexit. The Prime Minister defended her Brexit strategy, known as the Chequers Plan. Interestingly, she avoided at all costs using the „C” word in her speech in a clear effort not to supply the opponents of her ideas with new ammunition. As a whole, May spent little time on the subject of EU withdrawal in her speech. Instead, she used her speaking time to rage against the Labour Party and to hold out the prospect of an end to the austerity programmes of recent years. The party leader also pleaded for unity among the party members, underscoring the need for this as the country entered the toughest phase of negotiations with Brussels. „If we stick together and hold our nerve, we can get a deal that delivers for Britain,“ May told her audience. And as if that were not enough, the Prime Minister also maintained that „the best days were still to come“, with nations around the world ready to enter into trade relations with the UK after withdrawal from the EU. Theresa May clearly went to great effort to outwardly convey her confidence. However, she is hardly likely to convince the critics of her strategy with such phrases.
Tone of voice becoming harsher
May should be entering the final round of Brexit negotiations strengthened, at least if her perception of things is anything to go by. The responsible parties in Brussels are unlikely to be overly impressed by this. The main bone of contention remains the future border crossing between the EU and the UK on the island of Ireland. According to recent media reports, Theresa May is therefore considering the proposal of leaving the UK in Customs Union for a limited period after the transition period in order to gain more time for a trade agreement and thus avoid a hard border in Ireland. There was already speculation early on in the week that the British side was preparing a compromise acceptable to all parties.
This is unlikely to alter the fact that the tone of voice on both sides of the Channel has become harsher in recent weeks. Representatives of the European Union rejected the British Prime Minister’s proposals at the informal summit in Salzburg in a somewhat undiplomatic way. Since then British politicians have been demanding more respect from the negotiating partners. The fact that Britain’s Foreign Minister Hunt compared the EU with the Soviet Union was viewed by the other side – not surprisingly – as an affront.
Let’s hope that both sides are able to leave aside any personal sensitivities in their talks and return to an approach aimed at achieving a solution. The clock’s ticking. The next EU summit has been scheduled for mid-October. Negotiations are supposed to have been concluded by this date but nobody is expecting that any more. A special summit is likely to be held in mid-November. By then there must be signs of a compromise in order to pave the way for a last-minute solution in December.