Former UK-EU negotiator: May is handling Brexit in the ‘absolute worst way’ possible

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Brexit Secretary David Davis.
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REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

LONDON – A former UK diplomat to the European Union has told Business Insider that Theresa May’s government is handling Brexit talks in the “absolute worst way” possible.

Speaking to BI this week, Steven Bullock, a former UK negotiator to the EU, offered a scathing assessment of how ministers have behaved both before and after Brexit talks began, claiming that EU figures in Brussels are “baffled” by how unprepared the British side has been for negotiations.

“The people I talk to are just really sad about it. It’s like a friend who goes off the rails and you offer to help them and they turn you down,” Bullock, who is currently based in Brussels, told BI.

Bullock worked for the Department for International Development (DFID) before joining the UK’s Representation to the European Union in 2010 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK in EU Council working groups.

In a wide-ranging interview with BI, the former diplomat said that:

    Senior ministers are ignoring the expertise of civil servants. Boris Johnson is a “rear-end of a pantomime horse” who is embarrassing Britain. Brexit is “insanely complex” and it is “absurd” to say a free trade deal can be agreed in the two years allowed by Article 50.

For Bullock, though, it’s not just a lack of strategy that is letting the government down. He has been “deeply shocked” by how ministers have approached Brexit process in general, he tells me, particularly the way in which he believes ministers are ignoring both the words of EU figures in Brussels and the advice of knowledgeable civil servants in London.

“I have been really shocked. I have been really, truly, deeply shocked,” the former diplomat tells me.

“There is a very effective machine behind negotiations with the EU for the UK in general. We have the UK permanent representation containing a lot people who are outstanding and experts in the EU. We have lots of experts in Whitehall. Hundreds of them. There are lots of senior civil servants who have worked extensively with the EU.

“And yet we seem to have completely ignored all advice and any concept of there being a strategy.

“If someone had asked me in August ‘okay what would be the absolute worst way to approach this?’ I don’t think I could have done it as badly as government ministers are right now.”

What exactly is the UK government doing wrong?

In January Sir Ivan Rogers resigned as as UK’s chief ambassador to the EU. In his resignation letter, he encouraged fellow civil servants to “speak truth to those in power” by challenging “ill-founded arguments” and “muddled thinking.” Bullocks believes the letter was a clear window into a failing relationship between ministers and Whitehall.

“Sir Ivan Rogers’ resignation letter was extremely telling in that it spoke about speaking truth to power. What he was clearly saying was that the civil service had been attempting to do this but were not listened to,” he says.

What people say most is ‘are these people serious?’

“I worked a little bit with Ivan Rogers’ replacement – Sir Tim Barrow – and I admire him a great deal. I can’t believe that he would allow anything different. He will not allow civil servants to blur messages about realities.”

“There’s an assumption [among ministers] that the EU’s positioning is just that – positioning,” he adds.

“When people like Merkel say that the four freedoms can’t be divided, they are really not joking. It’s in the EU treaties. They are the cornerstones of the project.

“There seems to have been this attitude [on the UK side] that the EU doesn’t really mean it and then it’ll be okay once we explain it to them. But, obviously, that is not the case.”

“We have a rear-end of a pantomime horse as the foreign secretary”

Bullock reserves a particular ire for Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who he claimed is “unaware” of the consequences of his bullish approach to dealing with European counterparts. Johnson has come in for sharp criticism for comments he has made about the EU and its member states. For example, at the end of last year Italian minister Carlo Calenda said he felt insulted by Johnson after the Tory MP suggested Italy should push for Britain to remain in the single market otherwise it would be forced to sell less prosecco. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Johnson’s German counterpart, reportedly told colleagues that he couldn’t stand to be in the same room as the former London mayor.

Boris Johnson

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The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.
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Reuters

“We have a rear-end of a pantomime horse as the foreign secretary. It’s absolutely remarkable. I am extremely glad that I don’t need to work as a diplomat with Boris Johnson as foreign secretary,” Bullock explains.

“He’s really interesting because you can kind of see that he sees it as a game with winners and losers. And the objective is just to win. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the consequences.”

Bullock was keen to stress that Johnson’s questionable judgement was far from the government’s only problem.

“Somebody said to me the other day Britain looks like a failing state.

Somebody said to me the other day Britain looks like a failing state.

“You have a cabinet that is essentially arguing through newspaper articles with each other about the most important issue to face the UK for 40 years with impacts on generations to come. The UK government acts as if people in the EU don’t have access to UK news. People in the EU watch really closely.

“When Boris Johnson said that they could ‘go whistle’ it was noted and seen. All this cabinet infighting and all these leaks for certain sections of the press are just huge own-goals. What people say most is ‘are these people serious?'”

Believing we can get a free trade deal in two years is “absurd”

“So just how complex is Brexit?” I ask Bullock, to which he responds with laughter, before composing himself.

“It’s insanely complex. It’s just insane. I consider myself something of an expert in some aspects of the EU but every time I talk to anybody else who works in the institutions about Brexit, new areas of insane complexity and potentially awful consequences for the UK come up.”

Any examples?

“Somebody mentioned to me the other day patents. I had never even thought of patents. But when you start digging down a bit and think about issues like intellectual property rights and so on, these are little areas but these all need to be addressed in 20 months. If they are not addressed in 20 months the consequences for individuals and businesses in the UK will be awful. I’ve got a long list: medicine approvals, aviation safety, accreditation for service operations for planes, and so many more. Countless agencies governed by the ECJ. The UK may need to put in place entire new agencies for these things within 20 months. You can imagine the consequences of this not being done.

The idea that the entire deal will be done within the two years I find impossible to believe.

“It gets more complex every day than I thought it would be.”

And what about a free trade deal? Brexit Secretary David Davis and others have insisted that they will be able to negotiate both the divorce agreement and a long-term UK-EU trade relationship within the two year Article 50 period.

“The idea that you can have a free trade deal or future relationship sorted within the two years is just absolutely absurd. There is no possibility of that. There could be a divorce agreement and maybe a transition deal if it was very simple. The UK could agree to stay in the EEA for five years, for example. But the UK would have to agree to the package. There just isn’t time.”

He adds: “They are dealing with Northern Ireland this week. They are dealing with citizens rights this week and the financial settlement too. I can’t think that there is going to be a solution to any of them coming this week – and that’s another month gone until the next round.

“Also, don’t forget that the agreement can’t be reached in March 2019. It has to be reached in October 2018 at the very latest as it will have to be ratified by EU parliaments as well. The idea that the entire deal will be done within the two years I find impossible to believe. Even with the best will in the world, it cannot be done.”