Brexit: UK government should try to win back officials from European Commission by offering ‘more than competitive pay’, committee says

By on 13/07/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020

Britain’s government should make “particularly strenuous efforts” to win back more than 1,000 UK nationals working for the European Commission by offering “more than competitive pay” to help with Brexit negotiations, the parliamentary select committee on public administration has said.

It should focus especially on those EC officials working in key areas such as financial services and trade, because “their knowledge of European institutions will be crucial to providing the UK with the best possible basis with which to go into withdrawal and trade negotiations,” the committee wrote in a letter to Oliver Letwin, the minister tasked with heading up the government’s new Brexit Unit, and Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service.

The UK hasn’t had its own team of trade negotiators since it joined the European common market in 1973.

For years, the EC has negotiated world trade on behalf of all member states, and today, many of Britain’s most experienced experts work in Brussels for the Commission which employs hundreds of trade negotiators.

However, any effort by the UK government to convince EC negotiators to return to the British civil service could be exacerbated by officials’ unwillingness to unravel Britain’s relations with the EU – something they have devoted their whole careers to developing.

The government has already said it would turn to foreign governments, the private sector and retired civil servants for help with Brexit negotiations, after Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, told a select committee hearing that there were only about 20 people in the British civil service “who have active hands-on experience of international trade negotiations.”

The letter by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published today warned that hiring the necessary skills to negotiate a Brexit  could come “at considerable cost” and noted that Canada, which “has recently negotiated a (yet to be ratified) free trade agreement with the European Union, spends over 80 million Canadian dollars on its Integrated Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Policy.”

This policy, the letter added, commands 830 civil servants (or full-time equivalents) working in this area.

The committee also called for a new trade directorate to be set up within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), responsible for negotiating trade deals, which “should have a high level advisory group drawn from the City, business, and think tanks to inform its broader strategy.”

Negotiations with up 60 countries which currently have trade deals with the EU “must begin straight away, ready to be signed off on the day the UK formally leaves the EU,” the letter says, adding that countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand have already expressed a “strong interest in agreeing trade deals with the UK.”

The letter also urged the civil service to “quickly upskill a new profession of talented and effective negotiators” by developing a special training programme on trade negotiations and tariff agreements; speeding up the development of a planned new civil service leadership academy; offering “intensive training” for “graduates with the basic skills and knowledge in trade and trade negotiations;” and instituting a new civil service-wide “programme of residential courses to provide a framework to enable all civil servants to explore, understand and embrace both the consequences and the opportunities opened up by leaving the EU.”

Following the June referendum vote of 52% to 48% in favour of a British exit from the EU, the government announced that it would establish a new Brexit Unit, based in the Cabinet Office, made up of civil servants from the department, Treasury and the Foreign Office.

But today’s letter predicts that civil servants from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) would also likely have to be loaned to the new unit and said that “where resources have been stripped out to facilitate EU negotiations they must be replaced.”

Otherwise, the letter states, these departments risk “becoming dangerously reactive in other policy areas.”

“Across Whitehall [the civil service], there is a danger that Brexit could distract from other policies and activity, limiting the overall effectiveness of the government,” PACAC warned, adding that “each department should conduct its own capacity audit” in order to “assess what extra capacity is required to absorb the likely impact of Brexit, taking into account each department’s existing capacity and workload.”

The committee also argued strongly against the creation of a new dedicated Brexit ministry, an idea put forward by Theresa May, who today formally becomes Britain’s new prime minister.

The new department would either have “to be given such extensive powers over other government departments, with the potential for conflicts at the centre, or it would too easily be marginalised,” the letter says.

The process of leaving the EU “is a whole-of-government project,” according to the letter, which also calls on civil service leaders to “motivate civil servants across Whitehall on a sustained basis” and “imbue their departments with the enthusiasm and determination to pursue this new policy [of leaving the EU], but without closing down the discussion of concerns which are essential to the development of new learning and to securing the best outcomes.”

Brexit, the letter says, should happen “as swiftly as possible” but “will depend on officials across Whitehall.”

PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin, who is also a prominent Brexit campaigner, has previously argued that the UK should simply act on its referendum mandate and leave without talks.

Britain cannot “continue to be bound by a clause in the Lisbon Treaty which the voters have just rejected in the referendum,” he wrote in Civil Service World, arguing that the government and Tory leadership candidates should “commit to bring forward the necessary legislation to repeal the [1972 European Communities Act] as swiftly as possible.”

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See also:

A guide to Brexit, part 1: how Britain voted to leave the EU

A guide to Brexit, part 2: What’s the process for negotiating a British exit from the EU?

A guide to Brexit, part 3: Who’ll run the negotiations?

A guide to Brexit, part 4: Is Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable?

A guide to Brexit, part 5: What is the likely outcome of Brexit?

Is the EU referendum result a wake-up call for employers?

Olly Robbins appointed head of government’s new Brexit unit

Oliver Letwin ‘completely unsuitable’ to lead Brexit unit, says former cabinet secretary

Brexit will be ‘largest legal, legislative and bureaucratic project in British history’, says former UK Treasury Solicitor

Clash over civil service advice in EU referendum

Bank of England’s independence under threat in EU referendum row

EU issues Poland with official warning over constitutional court changes

Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor: EU Referendum interview

Managing the EU Migration Crisis

European Parliament orders Poland’s government to reverse changes to country’s top court

A family reunification dilemma for the EU

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

One Comment

  1. agtrier says:

    Staff Regulations for EU Officials, Article 16:

    “An official shall, after leaving the service, continue to be bound by the duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits.Officials intending to engage in an occupational activity, whether gainful or not, within two years of leaving the service shall inform their institution thereof using a specific form. If that activity is related to the work carried out by the official during the last three years of service and could lead to a conflict with the legitimate interests of the institution, the appointing authority may, having regard to the interests of the service, either forbid him from undertaking it or give its approval subject to any conditions it thinks fit.…”

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