Florence, the city home to Machiavelli, known for its historical trading power and as the cradle of the Renaissance. Was this speech a way for Prime Minister Theresa May to herald Brexit as being a rebirth of UK-EU cooperation, rather than an end? What did Europe actually make of it – both in Brussels and in its capitals? Below is a snap roundup of the reactions of European leaders and media outlets.

EU leaders

All eyes were on Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, with many expecting him to respond within 15 minutes, as had been rumoured. He took a little longer to call the speech “constructive” and “a step forward” but highlighted “they must be translated into a precise [UK] negotiating position”

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cautiously welcomed the speech saying,

Rather than nitpicking or being unnecessarily critical I think it’s important to accept this as a genuine gesture, an attempt to break the deadlock. I don’t think it’s a game changer but I do give it a guarded welcome and I think it is a step in the right direction and very welcome in that sense. But I don’t think it’s enough to say at this stage that it allows us to move on to the next phase of negotiations. I think we’ll need more clarity and more progress – and ultimately that’s a decision that European prime ministers and presidents will make collectively.

Italy’s EU Affairs Minister, Sandro Gozi, who was in the audience during May’s speech, also responded cautiously saying, the speech was “constructive” but now there must be “concrete negotiation proposals.”

Surprisingly, European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt responded positively to the speech saying,

Six months after the triggering of Article 50, it appears that the position of the UK is becoming more realistic. Finally, the UK Government concedes a transition period will be necessary.

He welcomed May’s “clarification” on the financial settlement but he was still unsure of what kind of future relationship the UK is asking for:

With regards to the future relationship, I heard a lot about what the UK doesn’t want (the single market, the customs union, the EEA or an FTA). I hope to hear from them soon how they see the “deep and special partnership” with the EU.

For leader of the European Parliament’s EPP group and Angela Merkel’s CSU ally Manfred Weber, May’s speech wasn’t enough to ease his concerns:

What did the papers say?


German business-friendly Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes that while “May’s much expected speech gives hope to the economy that Brexit will not hit them immediately…many questions remain open.” It describes her transition plan as “a gamble”, due to the government’s earlier reassurances that the UK would no longer “pay large sums to Brussels.”

Also Handelsblatt sees May’s speech as “an attempt to do the splits.” “May cannot escape the cage she built herself” the magazine writes, describing her as trapped between hard Brexiters at home and her European negotiating partners in Brussels. By trying to satisfy both these audiences, the result is that “both are unhappy”. “If negotiations continue at this speed, even a two-year transition period will not be enough” the paper concludes.

German centre-right daily Die Welt quotes German MEP Sven Giegold in calling May’s speech her “First step towards accepting reality”. It takes an overall negative position however, continuing that, “The disappointment in Brussels is big” as many details of the financial settlement remain unclear. In an earlier response to the speech, Die Welt was particularly critical towards the fact that “EU citizens will be asked to register”.

Writing of “Theresa May’s Pudding”, German daily Der Tagesspiegel calls May’s speech an important step to avoid a cliff-edge leading into “economic no-man’s-land” after Brexit. The newspaper describes her essential confirmation of the UK’s financial obligations as “pointing into the right direction”, but says May’s announcement that EU citizens moving to the UK will need to register in the future is troublesome.

“Britons want to remain friends” Germany’s centre-left Sueddeutsche Zeitung writes in response to May’s speech. Her speech was an act of “forward defense,” forced upon her by increasing “pressure from the economy” and a growing “camp of realists in London.”

In a separate article for the newspaper, German commentator Stefan Kornelius argues that “the EU should get involved with May’s proposal” that finally “offers ideas how Brexit could work”. The EU should not try to punish the UK now, but aim towards “binding the UK to the Union as closely as possible.”


Austrian daily Der Standard writes that “after months of tug war in her own cabinet, the British PM has softened her hard-Brexit stance”. The newfound unity was, it suggests, merely a “temporary ceasefire.”


Swiss Neue Zurcher Zeitung headlines that “May’s much promoted speech disappoints”. It contained “too little substance” to “unblock negotiations in Brussels”, while further weakening Britain’s negotiating position by making clear that “the times where Theresa May claimed that [no deal] was better than a bad deal are over.”


Polish EU Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski practically told the UK to ‘show me the money’. He said Britain’s financial settlement remains “the real problematic issue that remains to be resolved” and “We can agree to talk about a transitional period between the EU and the UK only if that could lead to complete fulfilment of the UK’s commitments towards the EU.”

Overall the initial reactions are tentatively positive – and we will follow the commentary on the Continent once Theresa May’s words have had a little longer to be digested.