Theresa May to offer stronger protection for EU citizens in Florence speech
Theresa May hopes to break the stalemate in Brexit negotiations in a defining speech in Florence on Friday by vowing to strengthen legal protections for EU citizens living in the UK.
Brussels has demanded the 3m EU nationals in the country have direct recourse to the European Court of Justice to ensure the rights they currently have in Britain are safeguarded after Brexit.
But the prime minister’s aides have told European diplomats to expect a proposal to ensure UK courts enforce the rights of EU citizens.
Rather than transpose specific policy provisions of any citizen rights deal into domestic UK law — and run the risk that MPs “dilute” the measures, as EU officials fear — parliament would instead make the relevant terms of the exit treaty directly enforceable in UK courts.
British officials have also told negotiators they are considering whether future ECJ case-law should be “taken into account” by British judges where relevant to the citizen rights — another key Brussels demand.
The willingness to allow a treaty deal on citizen rights to have “direct effect” in UK courts comes after three months of little progress in Brexit negotiations, with Britain’s exit bill and the status of EU citizens the primary sticking points.
After a week of cabinet feuding over Brexit, ministers made a conspicuous show of unity as they left a 21⁄2-hour special cabinet meeting in Downing Street on Thursday, insisting that they would back Mrs May when she unveils her new strategy.
Although Mrs May is not expected to put a precise figure on her opening offer on the so-called Brexit “divorce bill”, her officials have been briefing EU capitals that Britain will ensure that there is no hole in the EU budget in 2019 and 2020.
The UK would ensure that no EU member state would receive less money — or have to pay more into Brussels coffers because of Brexit — implying that Britain would pay at least €20bn over a two-year transition period, as first reported by the Financial Times.
The gestures on a transition deal, the Brexit bill and an offer on citizens’ rights could create room for significant progress in talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, ahead of a crunch October summit of EU leaders.
“While the UK’s departure from the EU is inevitably a difficult process, it is in all of our interests for our negotiations to succeed,” Mrs May will say according to excerpts of her speech released by Downing Street. She will call for the EU to be “imaginative and creative” in finding solutions “I believe we share a profound sense of responsibility to make this change work smoothly and sensibly, not just for people today but for the next generation who will inherit the world we leave them,” Mrs May is to say, according to the excerpts
Speaking in Rome on Thursday, Mr Barnier notably avoided any mention of direct ECJ jurisdiction — a red line for Mrs May — and stressed the importance of a Brexit deal having
a “direct effect” and the “possibility” of British courts referring questions to the court in Luxembourg.
The contents of Mrs May’s speech have caused a pitched battle within the cabinet in recent weeks, with the final shape of Brexit and a proposed Brexit bill offer proving especially contentious.
Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who set out his vision of a hard Brexit last weekend, left Number 10 alongside chancellor Philip Hammond, who has pushed for a “status quo” transition deal ending with Britain retaining strong ties to the single market.
In the cabinet meeting, the prime minister reiterated her belief that Britain should seek a “bespoke” final deal with the EU, saying neither a Canadian-style free trade agreement nor a much tighter Norway-style association with the single market worked for Britain.
One cabinet minister warned Britain had to be careful not to put too much money on the table now, because cash remained the most powerful weapon in securing a good trade deal.“We can’t use all of our leverage now,” said the minister.
The excerpts of Mrs May’s speech include a plea for negotiators to make more progress towards a final deal in the interest of both sides.
“If we can do that, then when this chapter of our European history is written, it will be remembered not for the differences we faced, but for the vision we showed; not for the challenges we endured but for the creativity we used to overcome them; not for a relationship that ended but a new partnership that began,” the prime minister will say. David Gauke, the centrist work and pensions secretary, told reporters following the cabinet debate at which all ministers present gave their views that Mrs May had “the backing of all of us”.
But despite the broad agreement over transition, a row is already developing over the shape of the final, post-transition relationship. Among Eurosceptic MPs there is a “spectrum” of views over how long the transition period should be — from six months to a couple of years.
Beyond 2020, however, any major financial contributions by Britain to the EU will spark uproar from the Tory benches, according to one former minister.
“Frankly that is the tightrope the prime minister is on. If she signals that we are not prepared to pay anything after that period we may as well just prepare for WTO rules,” he said. “If however she suggests that there will be payments, then it would have to be on terms acceptable to the entire party, and that would be extremely difficult.”
Another senior Eurosceptic said that paying to trade in the long term would be a “really big problem”.
“Until recently it looked like the cabinet disagreement was about transition, but now it is clear that there are quite big differences about the end state, which seems amazing given where we ought to be by now.”
Mrs May’s officials say the speech could be tweaked overnight before she delivers it on Friday afternoon in the Tuscan capital.
Ministers are hoping the speech will be given a muted welcome in EU capitals and that talks can move on to the second phase in the autumn where a future bilateral trading relationship will be negotiated.