Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on the future economic relationship between the UK and EU last Friday was well received domestically and even found some support across Europe. While commentators warned against interpreting the speech as a breakthrough, the general perception in Europe is that the British government’s position on Brexit has become more pragmatic and realistic. However, May’s proposals are still perceived as ‘cherry-picking’ by large parts of the media, who also stress that no acceptable solution to the Irish border problem has so far been found. Below is a roundup of the reactions that came from European leaders and media.

EU Reactions

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was positive, if reserved, on May’s speech.

His advisor, Stefaan De Rynck, dampened May’s hopes for wide-reaching mutual recognition, but welcomed the clarity of her speech.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit spokesperson for the European Parliament, remained sceptical whether May’s speech would translate into concrete proposals.

Theresa May needed to move beyond vague aspirations, we can only hope that serious proposals have been put in the post. While I welcome the call for a deep and special partnership, this cannot be achieved by putting a few extra cherries in the Brexit cake. Our relationship must be close and comprehensive. This is only possible if the UK understands that the EU is a rules based organisation. There is little appetite to re-negotiate the rules of the single market, simply to satisfy a divided Conservative party. Prime Minister May’s re-confirmation of our December agreement on the Irish border is reassuring. We need now credible proposals detailing how the UK seeks to achieve this in practice.

The chair of the powerful European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, was wholly unimpressed.

What did the papers say?

Germany – the British start accepting the drawbacks of Brexit, although ‘cherry-picking’ continues.

For many German commentators, May’s speech was merely another attempt at cherry-picking. Public broadcaster Deutsche Welle writes,

What Theresa May presented in London, did not cause any astonishment in Brussels. One knew that the Prime Minister would like to pick the best parts of the EU, without delivering anything in return, and without respecting the existing rules.

Die Bild, Germany’s most read newspaper, took the same line:

The cherry-picking continues: British Prime Minister Theresa May has foregone taking a clear position on the future economic relationship after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Others however noted that the tone coming from London had become more conciliatory, with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung arguing that May’s speech provided

…cause for hope that the UK and EU will still find a common path to limit the consequences of Brexit.

Also business-focussed Handelsblatt notes that

The Prime Minister appears more realistic regarding Brexit. The Brits have to accept ‘hard facts.’ But on one point, the musing continues … for the dilemma of the Irish border, May had no new solution on offer.

The newspaper even saw in the speech a desire by May to ensure a Brexit as soft as possible, considering the red lines she herself had drawn:

Seemingly unimpressed, May held onto her red lines: the decision to leave single market and customs union was not up for debate. But it became apparent that, within those parameters, she aims for the softest Brexit possible … she called on the Europeans to accommodate her.

Die Tagesschau, news channel of Germany’s public broadcaster ARD, commented:

At the end of May’s speech, there was a last plea to the EU: while Great Britain knows what it wants, it equally understands the principles of the other side. The common interest would need to be to arrive at a Brexit deal.


France – The UK realises it has to make concessions, and Theresa May comes across as pragmatic.

Le Figaro sees May adopting “a more realistic stance on Brexit,” and writes

Certainly, many crucial points that would allow for progress in negotiations between the two parties remain vague…but the head of the British government had the honesty to recognise that the UK, just like the EU, will not get “exactly what it wants” at the end of negotiations.

A similar line is taken by the financial daily Les Echos, which writes that “Theresa May recognises that the UK will have to make concessions”, adding

First, the tone was more precise. The Conservative Prime Minister did not hesitate to enter into technical details on the mechanisms proposed by the UK to reduce “frictions” at the border with the EU, despite its exit from the customs union and the single market. Nor did she object to descending into sectoral specificities.

Next, the style was more direct. For the first time, Theresa May openly recognises that the UK will have to make sacrifices to obtain the ambitious agreement it is seeking with the EU.

London will also agree to “undertake binding commitments” to access the European market on fair conditions…to sweeten the pill, however, she repeated that the British parliament would always have the final word. Words that were on the whole well received in Brussels.

Also for Le Monde the speech signalled a “(small) step towards Europe” by Theresa May, as it writes

The tone was conciliatory. In a speech on Brexit, Theresa May sought…to hold out a hand to the EU, and she prepared the ground for some concessions on her side.

But it notes that the key questions remain unanswered:

While calling for “the largest possible” free trade deal, the head of the British government left many grey areas in her speech, particularly on the famous question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Brussels has definitely  retained one thing: London maintains its decision to leave the customs union and the internal market…With the current state of Britain’s “red lines”, Brussels can only propose five models of “future relations” to London – a “Norwegian” deal, a “Swiss”, a “Ukrainian”, a “Turkish” or a “Canadian”. Theresa May has already said no to all of these.

The left-wing Liberation notes the Prime Minister’s pragmatism on Friday:

For the first time, without any spectacular or very precise announcements, Theresa May appeared pragmatic and conciliatory in recognising that leave the EU would not be easy or without consequences.

Although until now she had always rejected any future participation in the CJEU, the Conservative Prime Minister noted on Friday “that the second hard reality is that even if we are leaving the jurisdiction of the CJEU, European law and the decisions of the CJEU will continue to affect us.

The UK’s point of view is simple (sort of): there is no reason to base itself on precedents in the [Brexit] negotiations, because its situation is unique. Firstly, because it is the first country to leave the EU and because it is already aligned on all regulations. Next, because it is the second largest net contributor and, finally, because its economic weight, particularly in financial services, is incomparable to other third countries that have deals with the EU.

Ireland – not too convinced

The Irish Times writes that “Britain inches towards reality of Brexit,” arguing

Theresa May’s latest Brexit speech fell far short of a detailed negotiating position but it was an important moment in Britain’s internal debate as the prime minister made a strong case for a soft Brexit. She did so while respecting Brexiteer sensitivities, stressing that parliament could choose to put more distance between Britain and the European Union at any time after Brexit, but implying that it would have to be crazy to do so.

Another piece in the newspaper demands that “Ireland must look beyond current crisis to Brexit endgame,” and calls on the EU to consider creative solutions in order to achieve a deal:

A softer Brexit outcome preserving the customs union to keep the Irish border open is very much in the Irish interest but would require a willingness on the EU side to match British demands for some bespoke aspects in an agreement. Preparing a deal acceptable to both sides would need imaginative involvement by the Irish and British governments in bilateral talks to bring it to Brussels.

It makes sense to explore carefully what would be involved a new regime linking to UK to the EU. Given the size of its economy and importance for political and security in Europe it should be possible without relying only on off the shelf models from Norway, Turkey or Canada. Hints from Macron and the Italians along these lines are worth pursuing.

However, it notes a key obstacle to a flexible approach:

[The UK] are the demandeurs seeking change from outside the EU system. They no longer have the leverage to seek opt-outs or bespoke solutions within but threaten the EU’s unity and cohesion if they are accommodated.

The Irish Independent is extremely critical of “May’s irrational fantasy”, and writes

Last Friday’s bromide included a new rendition of the same unattainable ambition, ‘the broadest and deepest possible agreement, covering more sectors and cooperating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today.’

In ruling out both customs union and single market, Mrs May is ruling out frictionless trade not just with Ireland but with all 27 EU countries… Just as the red lines must produce a hard border in Ireland, so must they produce hard borders at Calais and Rotterdam. Only if the EU-27 were able to somehow ignore its treaty-based customs and trading rules could the UK as a third country enjoy the member-like access to European markets to which it appears to feel entitled.

Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner warns

The essential truth, that unless Brexit ambitions are modified a hard border is inevitable, is at best fudged or ignored. A charisma deficit is one thing, but fantasies like this suggests Mrs May’s leadership is undermined by something far more unattractive and sinister — especially as it seems to contradict the position agreed on a border just last December.

Italy – acknowledging the British turn towards pragmatism

In Italy, which faced its own general election on Sunday, Corriere della Sera describes May’s speech as

A pragmatic discourse… an injection of realism into the Brexit debate, with the aim of unlocking the negotiations with Brussels.

It is the first time the PM recognises that Brexit will not be all roses, as many in her party continue to repeat, but that there will be a price to pay

But it warns the Prime Minister’s proposal is

Basically an ‘à la carte’ approach to Brexit, in which London reserves the right to diverge from Europe, depending on the circumstances

La Repubblica strikes a similar tone, acknowledging that

The discourse does not contain resounding announcements. It is less substantial than the Florence speech…There is a different tone, with the exhortation to make mutual concessions, and the acceptance that in a negotiation, no one can get everything they want… a dose of ‘bitter truth,’ as May says herself.


“No one will get everything they want. And the ECJ jurisdiction over the UK must end.”

Poland – finally a realistic speech

Gazeta Wyborcza lauded the keynote given by May on Friday as realistic.

May’s speech was finally realistic: she admitted that neither side would get what they wanted. She spoke about accepting the fact that there are ‘hard truths,'” such as accepting some influence of the ECJ and losing passporting rights for the City.

Rzeczpospolita also sees the speech as a move towards a more realism in London, but remains to be fully convinced:

Theresa May acknowledges that life after Brexit will be difficult, but is still hoping for special treatment by the EU … [it consider the speech is] the most realistic of what she said so far, but still not explaining how London plans to convince Brussels to have a special, tailor-made agreement

Austria – May signals willingness to compromise

Austria’s Die Presse concludes that,

The British approach remains, of course, that London picks what it wants … Brussels has repeatedly rejected this position as unacceptable. Nevertheless, it seems as if the Prime Minister from London still hopes she can have success with her demands.

The speech differed in its tone from many previous utterances: May forewent any kind of boasting and of glorious prophecies about the shining future a post-Brexit Great Britain. Moreover, she also forced the radical Brexit-supporters within her own ranks to accept uncomfortable truths, for example that EU following regulations was “in our [UK] own interest.

For Der Standard it has become clear that “May argues for an as close as possible relationship with the EU,” with the paper noting:

Great Britain backs away from a hard Brexit: following the demands made by Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier this week to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, on Friday Prime Minister Theresa May also assures [us of] her willingness to compromise. To keep the trading relationship as frictionless as possible, the island wants to keep subjecting itself to sets of regulations created by important EU agencies, such as on pharmaceuticals and aviation.

Switzerland – EU unlikely to agree to such a comprehensive trade deal

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung agrees that May “struck a more cautious tone than previously during her keynote speech,” but also warns

May’s list of ‘creative ideas’ and of partial membership in EU institutions adds up to a trade agreement with extraordinary penetration. It is unlikely that the EU will lend itself to this if the UK does not remain in the customs union or single market.

In another piece on the speech, the NZZ even warns that “If May continues like this, a logjam in the Brexit talks is looming.

The British Prime Minister wants to achieve a more comprehensive trade deal than exists anywhere in the world. This is unlikely to score her any points in Brussels.

There was a particular outrage in London over the EU’s proposal for the intricate problem of the future  EU external border in Ireland … This bluntly revealed that differences between Brussels and London had just been poorly covered up last December … [In May’s speech] any hint of a suggestion how to solve the Irish border issue was absent.


Belgian daily De Tijd focuses on the Irish border, commenting

Brexit is threatening peace in Northern Ireland. There is only one solution: for the UK to stay in the customs union.

The Netherlands

Dutch public broader NOS TV writes that Theresa May leaves many questions unanswered,” while still “making clear to the British that not all their wishes will be met.”

Outside Europe

Across the Atlantic, the New York Times argues that May outlined

A plan that seemed designed more to unite warring lawmakers at home, than to win over her continental critics there was little comfort for pro-Europeans either, no sign of Mrs. May buckling to pressure.

She offered no answers to the Irish border question, beyond previous vague assertions that technological solutions can be found.

To the Wall Street Journal, the speech was

An overdue moment of clarity that may go some way towards unblocking stalled Brexit negotiations. But the UK Prime Minister has yet to provide any answer to a more fundamental question at the heart of Brexit: how does she see Britain’s future place in the world?

If ‘global Britain’ is to be anything more than a slogan, the UK will face some tough decisions. Significant investment will be needed in its defense capabilities and foreign network to maintain global influence.

Brexiters may claim that Brexit wasn’t a retreat from the world — but can they persuade voters to stump up the cash to make their dream of global Britain a reality?