The role of the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the European Union has always been highly political one. Never more so than now, as the start of the Brexit negotiations approach.
Over 40 years, most of its occupants of the role have been highly skilled and very tough public servants – qualities now attributed to the new leader of the UK representation in Brussels, Sir Tim Barrow.
All have been neurotically sensitive to the attitudes to Europe of the prime minister of the day. One of Sir Tim’s illustrious predecessors confessed over a glass of whisky some decades ago that his main objective was “to reconcile the prime minister to membership of the European Community”. She was never fully converted.
Sir Tim is being parachuted into what is already the toughest job in British diplomacy; a job made all the more difficult by the laser-like focus from the British media and Brexit supporters across the political spectrum. The speed of his appointment – within hours of the explosive resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers – suggests that Prime Minister Theresa May was anxious to sidestep any attempt to establish clear support for Brexit as an indispensable qualification for the job.
An allegedly impeccable source told former Liberal MEP Andrew Duff that Sir Ivan resigned because Theresa May was no longer listening to his advice. The working relationship between May and Rogers is said to have been damaged by last month’s leak of his memo to Downing Street. The memo warned that it might take up to ten years to complete a new trading arrangement with the EU.
“For four decades the rules, regulations and political processes of the EU have shaped the policy thinking and actions of successive British governments”
Up to now Britain’s permanent representatives in Brussels have been dedicated to making EU membership as successful as possible for the UK. Since 23 June this role has been stood on its head, and Sir Ivan’s task had been to work for a successful withdrawal.
He clearly had little taste for it. The referendum result has imposed a physical and emotional toll on middle and senior managers at the Foreign Office and in the home civil service that should not be underestimated.
For four decades the rules, regulations and political processes of the EU have shaped the policy thinking and actions of successive British governments. More than a few civil servants have complained over the years that membership was a straitjacket around national policymaking. But as time has gone on very few of them either wanted Brexit, or thought it possible.
Now, UK civil servants are being forced to discard the political and intellectual framework that has shaped their careers and assumptions about the future. Worse, they will have to unpick regulations and obligations that have benefitted Britain for more than 40 years. Civil servants are also being encouraged to regard profound economic uncertainty at home and a loss of status and influence abroad as exciting opportunities.
The machinery of government is creaking badly in Britain, as demonstrated by Sir Ivan’s resignation. Dave Penman, head of the top civil servants’ trade union, said in early January: “If the civil service is to deliver a successful Brexit negotiation, the recipe for that success is unlikely to be to starve it of resources, lack clarity of objective and be surrounded with yes men and women who will not speak truth unto power,” he said.
“Conviction is not enough – without fact-based analysis, post-truth becomes no truth, no matter how uncertain the future”
There is too much work for too few people with the knowledge and experience to manage disengagement from the EU across the whole spectrum of government, from trade policy to research and innovation.
The situation is worsened by the Prime Minister and her senior colleagues consistently underestimating the challenges of Brexit. Understandably, by nature of their trade, ministers generally have to glow with optimism about changes they advocate. Whether it is transport or social policy or health and welfare reform, they must exhibit an evangelical conviction that they will make things better.
But conviction is not enough. Without fact-based analysis, post-truth becomes no truth, no matter how uncertain the future. Brexiteers float on a cloud of mindless (or, as Sir Ivan said, “muddle-headed”) optimism and a meretricious minimising of the dangers to Britain of its historic change of direction. The government’s political mindset is defensively blind to the possibility of Brexit failure because the alternative is the deafening sound of political careers crashing to the ground.
As the triggering of Article 50 looms and the process of departure becomes real, the United Kingdom is dangerously unprepared for the consequences. Second thoughts will come, and they will change the face of British politics.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – European Council