“Worse is yet to come”: former UK EU rep’s view on Brexit

By on 21/05/2019
Former UK rep to the EU Ivan Rogers: EU’s patience is running thin (Image courtesy: Ian Hall).

As Europeans go to the polls this week, the UK PM’s new offer to MPs looks unlikely to rescue the country from its Brexit turmoil. Last week, the former British rep to the EU warned that Continental leaders’ patience is running out – and that the UK’s troubles may yet deepen. Ian Hall reports

If the UK hasn’t resolved its political stalemate on EU exit by the time the current extension period closes at the end of October, it may not be granted a further extension – leaving Britain facing a ‘no deal’ exit.

That’s the view of Britain’s former top civil servant in Brussels, Sir Ivan Rogers. Speaking ahead of this week’s EU-wide parliamentary elections, Rogers also warned that the Brexit process will last for years – and is likely to become still more disruptive over the coming months. “I think worse is to come for the next few months, and maybe years,” he said.

Rogers was Britain’s permanent representative to the EU 2013-‘17, and has spoken out previously about Britain’s political reaction to Brexit – pointing out how strategic errors by the UK weakened its position, and arguing that its threats to leave with ‘no deal’ rang hollow. Discussing the EU’s willingness to grant another extension, he said: “If the perception grows that the time [provided by the existing six-month extension] has been completely squandered on internal Conservative and Labour dynamics, I do think [Europe] – probably led by [French President, Emmanuel] Macron – will say: ‘What are we waiting for?’, and: ‘Why should Europe carry on having its agenda in some way paralysed by British paralysis?’”

EU patience may run out

Speaking at a conference organised by investment managers’ body the CFA Institute, Rogers added: “Don’t take for granted that the EU side will have exactly the same line-up and exactly the same sentiment if the-then British prime minister makes a request for another extension at the end of October, because I think that becomes a more difficult judgement for the Europeans to make: are we kicking the can permanently down the road?”

The current extension period was agreed as the UK neared the 29 March: the date set for its exit from the EU when prime minister Theresa May initiated the ‘Article 50’ process two years previously. By March, May had three times failed to get the House of Commons’ support for her Withdrawal Agreement, which covers key issues such as citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial obligations, and ‘backstop’ arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland – and would open the path to negotiations on the future UK/EU trading relationship.

Only if May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is ratified by the UK and the EU will the UK leave before 31 October; failing that, at that point Britain will again have to choose between seeking an extension and dropping out without a deal.

The knives are out

But since the extension was agreed, May’s political troubles have only deepened. Tory MPs have attempted to change party rules, permitting another bid to replace her: she survived an attempt to unseat her in December, and under current rules can’t be challenged again for a year. Under pressure from her MPs, she’s promised to set down a timetable for her departure in the first week of June – when she is expected to make another attempt to get her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.

Meanwhile, May has been negotiating with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in an attempt to broker agreement on changes to the WA – or the accompanying Political Declaration – that will win Corbyn’s support and provide the Commons votes she needs. But conceding Labour’s key demands – membership of the Customs Union, and continuing alignment to EU rules on environmental and workers’ protections – would lose May Tory votes and risk further Cabinet rebellions. Talks broke down last week, with Labour reaffirming its determination to oppose the WA.

On Tuesday, May set out a series of amendments to the WA designed to win over wavering Labour MPs, explaining that the Bill will include guarantees on workers’ rights, environmental protections, and votes to identify a “compromise” on the Customs Union. For Brexiteers, she offered to introduce a legal obligation for the government to find a way of avoiding ending up in the Northern Ireland backstop. And she promised to permit MPs a vote on whether to hold a confirmatory referendum, saying that if a majority back it then she’ll allow the parliamentary time for the required legislation.

Brexiteer Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party – on which the government depends for a majority – responded angrily to the concessions offered to Labour MPs. And Corbyn has reaffirmed his opposition to the deal, saying that May’s new offer is “basically a rehash of what was discussed before” – and rejected in the two-party talks. “There’s also, of course, the question of the deliverability of it,” he added. “The prime minister has already indicated she’s going to leave office.”

More political turmoil

Indeed, May’s authority has been weakened by her pledge to quit if her deal passes the Commons: Labour – quite reasonably – fears that her successor would bank the vote to leave the EU, whilst ditching May’s concessions and dropping any plan for a referendum.

So the likelihood is that May’s deal will fall again in the Commons, prompting a leadership battle that may well elect a hard Brexiteer: former foreign secretary Boris Johnson is currently the leading contender, though the obvious candidate rarely triumphs in Tory contests.

“My instinct is that we’ll have a Tory leadership election and we’ll have a general election,” commented Rogers. If a new PM manages to secure a solid majority in the Commons, they might be able to win some further concessions from the EU and get their reworked deal through Parliament. But this would require both a Tory election win by the autumn, and more flexibility on the EU’s part – and without either factor, the UK would be looking at a no deal exit. As Rogers said of the Tory leadership contest and election: “If that doesn’t solve things, then goodness knows where we’ll end up.”

Sending in the vandals

This week’s EU elections may also influence the process, with arch-leaver Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party currently leading the polls. On this, Rogers said: “If [the EU is] faced with a phalanx of Brexit Party MEPs wanting to ‘behave badly’ in the European Parliament, there will be more support for Macron’s approach of saying: ‘Why are we carrying on with this charade? Isn’t it time to bring this process to an end, and time for us to end the process, rather than the British, and move to a ‘No Deal?’”

Discussing the UK’s political paralysis, Rogers expressed his sympathy for May’s predicament. “It’s the job from hell, in fairness to the prime minister,” he told the conference audience. “This is a de-merger process or, in the jargon of Brussels, it’s a de-accession process.

“When you are joining the EU it takes years and you’re converging on a lawbook that is 100,000 pages long, at least, across 35 sectors of the economy. But you’re converging on a known destination: the lawbook of the EU. We are de-merging and taking ourselves to an unknown destination.

“All of it is going to be political trouble and it’s all got to come together in a free trade agreement. [The EU] will say: ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, and: ‘We can’t possibly agree with you on, say, electricity, until we have agreed on fish; and we’re not going to agree on financial services until we have agreed on state aid’. I’m afraid that’s how it works.”

A long haul ahead

So Rogers – who is not a fan of a confirmatory referendum – believes the UK is still early in a very long, painful process: he warned that Brexit will continue to disrupt Britain’s politics and economy for years to come. “My hope is that we get through the worst of this in the next three to five years,” he said. “But I think worse is to come for the next few months and maybe years. Then we surface from this in the latter part of the 2020s.”

“Please don’t think this is going to be solved in the next few months. It isn’t. This is a very long story, and we are much nearer the beginning than the end.”

The CFA Institute’s conference was entitled ‘Disruption: The New Reality in Investment Management’, and held 12-15 May at London’s ExCeL venue. Rogers spoke on a panel also featuring Thomas Mayer, founding director of the Cologne-based think-tank Flossbach von Storch Research Institute; and Michala Marcussen, group chief economist and head of economic and sector research at French bank Société Générale.

Looking ahead to this week’s European elections Marcussen said: “Usually, when we have European elections no-one knows the dates, no-one cares and everyone has a great big yawn. But that’s different this time. The elections may give rise to all sorts of things in all sorts of countries, but [at least] people are interested.”

About Ian Hall

Ian is a former editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011), who has most recently worked as UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018). He is also a former news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.

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