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May hopes to end cabinet disquiet with Brexit speech

© AFP/File / by Alice RITCHIE | Britain and the EU are to restart Brexit negotiations on September 25, but Prime Minister Theresa May is yet to reveal much about what she wants from a deal

LONDON (AFP) - 

British Prime Minister Theresa May will make an eagerly anticipated Brexit speech in Florence on Friday, seeking to unlock stalled negotiations with Brussels as well as quell divisions in her own cabinet.

Six months after beginning the two-year process of withdrawing Britain from the European Union, the Conservative leader has yet to set out in detail what she wants from the divorce.

A fourth round of talks with the European Commission are due to begin on September 25 and the question of Britain's financial settlement remains a significant stumbling block.

The lack of clarity was reinforced when May's foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, laid out his own vision for Brexit in a newspaper article widely viewed as an attempt to force his premier's hand.

A senior official in Brussels said there were "high expectations" for May's speech, both on the money and another blocked issue -- the rights of EU nationals living in Britain after Brexit.

Businesses are also watching closely. The head of the CBI lobby group of business leaders, Carolyn Fairbairn, warned the risks of leaving the EU without a deal felt "all too real".

- 'Say what she wants' -

Without progress in next week's talks, EU leaders are unlikely to accept Britain's request to move the negotiations on to the future trading relationship at their next summit in October.

"The onus is on the British to come up with a serious offer to move the talks forward," Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (CER), told AFP.

"Theresa May needs to make a serious offer on the money that she hasn't made so far. And on the transition, she needs to say what she wants."

The Financial Times reported that May would offer to meet Britain's commitments under the current EU budget, which runs to 2020, worth 20 billion euros (£18 billion, $24 billion).

This would mean continued payments during a transition deal that Britain wants to bridge the gap between Brexit in March 2019 and the implementation of a new trading arrangement.

A major problem for May is that her ministers still disagree on the future shape of Brexit -- highlighted by Johnson's 4,000-word article in the Daily Telegraph last weekend.

Johnson, a leading voice for Brexit in last year's referendum campaign who has long had leadership ambitions, argued for a clean break with the EU, including on financial matters.

He subsequently denied reports he had threatened to resign, and insisted the cabinet was as united as a "nest of singing birds".

- Home of Machiavelli -

Johnson's intervention highlighted the fragility of May's position, after her Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority in June's snap election.

The prime minister chose Florence to deliver her speech because it is the "historical heart" of Europe.

But some commentators have noted that the Italian city was also home to Machiavelli, the Renaissance philosopher and author of "The Prince" who has become a byword for slippery politicians.

A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph had Johnson and members of the cabinet grappling with each other and snakes subbed "Brexitus", an apparent reference to a sculpture in the Uffizi Gallery.

The Times, meanwhile, had Johnson as King Kong, holding May in one hand as he swung on the famous dome of Florence's cathedral.

The prime minister has insisted she is in control, saying on Monday: "The UK government is driven from the front and we all have the same destination in our sights."

May has called a special cabinet meeting for Thursday morning, when she is expected to brief ministers about what she will say in Florence -- and ensure they fall in line.

Former Conservative leader William Hague said it was "about time" that ministers rallied around.

"The period of negotiating publicly with each other is over, and .. the time for negotiating in earnest with the EU has begun," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

by Alice RITCHIE

© 2017 AFP