The government does not understand how the EU works and so embarks on negotiating strategies that are doomed to fail, Britain’s former ambassador to Brussels has said.
Ivan Rogers, who was Britain’s face in the EU capital from 2013 until 2017, said the government always thought it could circumvent the European Commission and deal directly with member state leaders.
But the former permanent representative said the bloc “never works like that” and that the approach – pursued by Theresa May and David Cameron alike – always ended in embarrassment.
“Capitals obviously matter, but I think having lived through this with a number of prime ministers, a number of different negotiations ... that reflex in the British system always to think that we can deal direct with the organ grinders and not the monkeys: it never works like that. It didn’t work like that in the Cameron renegotiation either,” he told an event at the Institute for Government think tank.
“That stuff is not done in the way British politics works, leader to leader. It’s done via the bureaucrats, and the Sherpas, and the people at the top of the institutions.
“The Brits constantly either misunderstand that or just don’t realise that circumventing that and thinking ‘Oh, we can go direct to Berlin or Paris or any other capital and square that off – and that will be different from the orthodoxy we’re getting out of Brussels’ – never works.”
The government has been frustrated throughout Brexit talks at the lack of direct negotiations between the prime minister and other EU27 presidents and prime ministers.
Despite lurid predictions in some corners of the British press that Angela Merkel would ride to Britain’s rescue and cut a special deal, the bloc has insisted on keeping negotiations between Michel Barnier and his constantly resigning UK counterparts.
The prime minister has generally only been given limited time to speak on Brexit at European Council summits, with a two-way back and forth generally off the table. When they have happened – as at the summit in December – they have not always gone well.
The EU has put the unity of the 27 EU member states at the centre of its negotiating strategy during Brexit. Officials close to talks say the UK has tried to split off member states, but with little luck.
Before he was appointed Brexit secretary, David Davis laid out his strategy in a series of tweets, one of which read: “The first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal.”
The former UK diplomat Mr Rogers told the same event on Monday that he did not think a customs union would be an option for the UK outside the EU.
“I don’t think it will be sustainable long-term to be in a customs union and not have a greater degree of autonomy over our trade policy,” he said.
“We would get consultation rights, sure, we might get superior consultation rights – but they would only be consultation rights – and ultimately the negotiating mandate would reflect the interests of the 27, no doubt articulated carefully to take account of British interests.”
He also described the prospect of an extension of Article 50 as “quite problematic” because of the issue of the UK having to take part in European Parliament elections.
Mr Rogers stepped down in early 2017, reportedly after a row with Theresa May’s advisers. He had reportedly told ministers privately that Brexit could take a decade to resolve, angering them.
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