How Britain built its own cliff edge

By on 12/10/2018
When Brexit’s champions built a bridge out of the EU, they neglected to ensure that it was structurally sound – or led somewhere

The UK’s former Permanent Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, left the civil service last year after providing advice on Brexit that ministers didn’t want to hear. Now he has dissected the self-delusions that brought Britain to the edge of a precipice – and made clear the only alternative to jumping off. Matt Ross reports

The UK’s former ambassador to the EU has accused Britain’s Brexiteers of “extraordinary” and “culpable naiveté” in their approach to the EU, in a dramatic speech highlighting the misconceptions and miscalculations that have led the country into its current predicament.

Speaking at Cambridge University this week, Sir Ivan Rogers said that, nearly two and a half years on from the referendum, the UK is “still lost in campaign mode on fantasy island” – both in terms of a deal with the EU and on other post-Brexit trade deals.

Rogers was the PM’s Adviser on European and Global Issues, before serving as British Permanent Representative to the European Union for four years. Last year, leaks revealed that he’d warned the government that concluding a free trade deal with the EU could take a decade – a position seen as too negative by Brexiteer Tories, who leant on PM Theresa May until Rogers quit.

Fundamental errors

In Rogers’ view, Brexit is “an elites project for a regime change, led primarily by entirely establishment figures, often masquerading as non establishment ones.” And at its root, he said, is the fact that the Britain’s political elite has never “understood the purpose of the project in the same way as European elites, whose experience of world wars, of civil wars, and of the Iron Curtain’s division of Europe marked them very differently, and persuaded them that only ‘deep supranationalism’ could save Europe from repeating its conflicts.”

The UK has been highly influential in Europe, Rogers argued – but political leaders consistently claimed credit for the rewards of membership, whilst blaming the EU for its unpopular consequences. Britain pushed for a strong Single Market, which boosted economic growth, he said; but this couldn’t be policed without strict rules and powerful courts – eroding national sovereignty in ways the public disliked. It led the expansion eastwards, and won macro-economic competitive advantage by accepting large numbers of EU immigrants – but failed to shield UK citizens from the consequent pressures on public services and wage levels.

Yet whilst UK governments sold themselves on the economic growth to which EU membership had been so crucial, “politicians of both hues rarely talked up advances, except as victories over enemies, imaginary or real, mostly in Brussels.”

“If you fail consistently to make that argument in ‘peace time’, it is not surprising that you cannot succeed with it at referendum time, and that people are inclined to believe the charlatans who tell them that they can have all that they like – lots – about the trade relations within the EU, with none of the costs or obligations of being in it,” said Rogers. “And who tell you that the re-erection of trade barriers when you leave the Market is an act of punitive vengeance, as opposed to what it is: an entirely automatic consequence of your own choice to leave the legal structures.”

Brexiteer paradoxes

After the referendum, Rogers said, the Brexiteers wanted “a radical and rapid rupture” and failed to consider “the process by which one might extricate oneself, with as minimal transitional damage as possible, from a huge number of legal, institutional and regulatory arrangements which had become central to the operation of the British state.”

Paradoxically, he added, they “believed that the EU had inserted itself into virtually every nook and cranny of the country’s social and economic life – a proposition with which I would also rather agree – also believing that all these strings could be cut extremely rapidly, and that nothing would go awry for the UK.”

They also hugely underestimated the difficulty of brokering a new trade deals with the bloc and other countries. Whilst still in the civil service, Rogers recalled, “I was dealing day by day with senior Cabinet ministers, many of whom were and still are central players in the process, who argued that the ‘trade deal with the EU’ had to be negotiated, agreed and ratified before we left and in operation the day after legal exit, and that we had to have a plethora of new trade deals with other global players in force as well. Plenty of such lofty promises were made in the referendum campaign of course. They were, and have been proven, total fantasy.”

Caught in a trap of the UK’s own making

Having not understood the nature and dynamics of international negotiations – either on new trade deals, or in EU exit talks – the UK government set the clock ticking by invoking Article 50, creating a deadline that could only favour the EU. And “the EU has been boiling the UK frog ever since. On process, sequencing, substance, there has been movement only one way,” he commented. “The fact that, even now, so many Brexit advocates think that the EU is only deploying such a strategy because it is desperate to keep the UK in the EU just tells you how far detached from EU reality much of our political class is.

“The aim of the 27, perfectly legitimately, whether or not it is wisely, has been to maximise leverage during the withdrawal process and tee up a trade negotiation after our exit where the clock and the cliff edge can again be used to maximise concessions from London.”

Britain is now, said Rogers, trapped in 21-month “voiceless ruletaking transition”. And the EU has no incentive to offer anything better; instead, it will continue to use time pressure to wring further transitions from the UK.

An overplayed hand

Brexiteer politicians, said Rogers, failed to understand the hard-nosed, uncompromising stance that the EU would take as soon as the UK opted to leave – believing, “bizarrely”, that the EU wouldn’t “exercise its superpower muscles when dealing with us as a former member. Hence the extraordinary – indeed I would say culpable – naïveté we have seen almost daily for two years.” Brexit is, he added, “simply not a process in which the rules of the club we are departing are up for grabs and for revision.”

Arguing constantly that “the mercantile interests of individual key member states would, in the end, trump the collective interests of the bloc,” Brexiteers believed “that the dread theologian lawyers of Brussels would therefore be overruled and undermined by leaders.” But this massively underestimates the commitment across the EU to the integrity of its institutions and structures, and displays “an age-old British misunderstanding of how the EU functions, or could ever function.”

The same misapprehensions lie behind both Theresa May’s Chequers plan and the ideas put forward by more radical Brexiteers such as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, said Rogers; for the EU will not allow the UK to remain a participant in key aspects of the Single Market and Customs Union, whilst retaining the flexibility to make changes which give it a competitive advantage. Both May and Johnson’s plans have “precisely zero” chance of agreement by Brussels, he said.

“It is self-evidently not in their interests to accord you unchanged internal Customs Union terms when you want to leave the Customs Union and run what you consider a better trade policy, aiming to outcompete theirs,” he pointed out.

Boxed into a corner

The UK government’s approach to EU negotiations has, Rogers argued, only ever reflected the dynamics of internal Conservative Party politics – ignoring the trade-offs that would be required to secure a deal with the EU. Hence Chequers, which seeks to meet both the hard Brexiteers’ demands for the ability to make global free trade deals, and UK manufacturers’ need for frictionless trade with the Continent.

“As tends to happen in revolutions, the ambitions for the hardness, cleanness, abruptness of Brexit have now risen well beyond the stated ambitions of the vast bulk of Brexit supporters at and after the time David Cameron committed to an in-out referendum,” he commented. “When you are living in a world of revolutionary politics, this kind of total fantasy proposition… starts to make sense, and you persuade yourselves that, as there is no other way of your squaring impossible circles, it must fly.”

However, he continued, the EU’s position has remained consistent – and will continue to do so: “Faced by a UK which essentially wants all the benefits of unchanged free trade from its EU membership days, with none [or] few of the obligations, the EU repeatedly says: ‘That is just never going to be on offer, and you must choose between a Canadian style relationship, which offers you much greater autonomy but much lower access to our market, and a Norwegian type deal which offers far better market access but much less autonomy’.

“It was never going to say anything else. It was always going to put first the integrity of its current legal order and the need to demonstrate a very clear distinction between the benefits available to members, and the best that could ever be on offer to any third country. And it was never going to change its legal order for the benefit of a state that had chosen to leave it.”

A very British revolution

“This, then, is a very British establishment sort of revolution,” he concluded. “No plan and little planning, oodles of [university philosophy, politics and economics] tutorial-level plausible bullshit, supreme self confidence that we understand others’ real interests better than they do, a complete inability to fathom the nature and incentives of the ancien regime.”

And as a result of these wilful self-deceptions, said Rogers, the UK is now in a position where “it will be obvious by early autumn 2020 – long before, in reality – that the deal will not be ready by the year end, and that an extension is needed to crack the really tough issues.

“The EU, in no particular rush to get this done – as it sits rather comfortably with the UK in its status quo transition, with all the obligations of membership and none of the rights – will use the prospective cliff edge to force concessions, or to offer a thinner deal, more skewed to its interests, in the hope that the UK is desperate enough, pre election, to get it done.”

And unless something dramatic changes in British politics, then the country’s leaders – who have repeatedly looked over the cliff-edge of ‘no deal’ before hastily retreating – will at that point have no option but to take whatever is on offer.

Additional reporting by Catherine Early

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

3 Comments

  1. Martin from Canada

    15/10/2018 at

    Fantastic article, thanks. It would have been interesting to include any Q&As that arose from the talk at Cambridge, particularly pushing back on his premise. Thanks again.

  2. Douglas from New Zealand

    15/10/2018 at

    As Martin says, a fantastic article indeed and one of the best I have read in two years of following this slowly unfolding disaster.

    There’s been a stream of UK politicians coming to NZ over the past 12 months telling us about the wonderful trade deals that await us when they brexit. Not too much belief in that scenario from this end of the world….:-).

    On another note, did anyone video that talk?

    Thanks very much.

  3. SRHD

    05/11/2018 at

    I can see why he had to leave Government. Negative whinging wet. Nothing balanced about his commentary and he conveniently ignores the perils of civil servants like him drawing lines on maps hanging on to an arrogant and false belief that they know best. I haven’t checked his biography but was he in ISRAEL, CZ, Former YUGOSLAVIA, CYPRUS or even NI perhaps where civil servants’ china graph pencils were mightier than the sword in fostering festering resentment and this leads to BLOODY & BITTER CONFLICTS and genocidal atrocities.

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