As a British EU negotiator, I can tell you that Brexit is going to be far worse than anyone could have guessed

The Government keeps saying it ‘didn’t realise’ the problems, but they had the experts at Whitehall – they just refused to listen to them. Now we’re facing a breakdown in airline safety, medicine, animal welfare, security, international aid and so much more

Steve Bullock
Saturday 28 July 2018 15:15 BST
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For anyone following Brexit developments, the last week should have shown that the level of complexity involved in Brexit is unprecedented. Ministers however seem to have inserted their heads firmly into the sand, hoping tricky problems will just go away.

Who knew a fortnight ago that leaving the apparently obscure Euratom Treaty would jeopardise not only the UK nuclear industry, but also the supply of medical isotopes for cancer treatment?

Did anybody realise that the work needed to establish a new customs IT system was unlikely to be done in time, and what that would mean?

Was everyone already aware that UK airlines like easyJet would need to set up in the EU27 and Ryanair might move its planes to EU27 countries due to the UK leaving the Open Skies Agreement?

Well, some people knew, but they’re just experts, so have been largely ignored.

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I was walking across a Brussels park a couple of days after the Article 50 bill was published when I spotted a friend who’s an energy sector expert. He hailed me with an anguished: “Steve, Euratom, why would they do that!? It’s just so unnecessary. A total own goal.”

Being a sector expert, he knows that the nuclear industry in the UK relies massively on Euratom, and that it may take years and lots of money to get back to the point we’re at now. All that matters to the Government, apparently, is that Euratom is within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, so it has to go.

In international development, the area I used to work in, things are equally grim. UK NGOs such as Oxfam will not be eligible for EU grants post-Brexit. With only a few small exceptions, only NGOs from EU countries, and the partner countries themselves, can implement EU aid programmes.

I know this well, as I was the UK negotiator for the EU regulation on this. As Tamsyn Barton, my old boss in the Department for International Development, and now chief executive of Bond, the UK NGO network, points out, this will hit large and small NGOs, as well as the many UK companies that currently implement EU aid. So UK NGOs may well struggle, UK companies will be worse off, and developing countries will have access to a smaller pool of expertise. Who knew?

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There are literally hundreds of such issues where the effects of Brexit will be detrimental to the UK. All of these have to be resolved in Brexit negotiations, or mitigated by the UK Government. I worked on and in the EU for 12 years, but issues that had never even occurred to me come up all the time. For example, while we are becoming aware of the impact of leaving the Open Skies Agreement on the aviation market, few have spotted Brexit’s impact on aviation safety.

The UK does not have its own capacity to do things like certify maintenance facilities if it leaves the European Aviation Safety Agency. Yes, you heard that right. The UK won’t be able to certify the people that fix the planes. As with so many of these issues, the UK will either have to negotiate to remain in the agency (which is within the dreaded European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction), or establish its own capacity to replace what it does from a standing start in only 20 months.

How will the UK remain in the EU’s internal energy market post-Brexit as it looks to import more energy from the EU, and what are the implications if it doesn’t? What about the Emissions Trading System? Patents and intellectual property rights? Food standards? Medicine approvals? Europol? The list goes on and on.

What is most frustrating, and deeply worrying, about these continuous “we didn’t realise that” moments is that the Government has plenty of excellent sector-specific experts in Whitehall, and the United Kingdom Representation to the European Union (UKRep), which represents the UK in negotiations that take place in the EU. I simply don’t believe that they are not doing their job and reporting these issues to ministers and their offices.

Perhaps those closest to ministers are controlling the supply of information to them, and the messages are not getting through, but reporting back the realities in Brussels to London is a core task of UKRep, and one that’s always taken very seriously. When Sir Ivan Rogers talked about “speaking truth to power”, he was just talking about what every one of the desk officers and counsellors at UKRep do every day.

Why is this top quality expertise and advice not getting through to, or not being listened to, by ministers?

The incredible level of technical complexity appears to have been ignored by the Prime Minister and government ministers, so we can look forward to further weeks of startling discoveries of self-defeating implications of the Government’s own Brexit strategy.

I’ve said elsewhere that, in my view, the chances of getting any deal, let alone a good deal, in the limited time available look minimal. Brexit would have been a terrible idea even if done as well as possible, but for the Government to blithely march the country towards consequences that they don’t even themselves understand is an appalling dereliction of duty.

This expert believes that this needs to be stopped, and soon. Then again, we already know they don’t like experts.

Steve Bullock worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK in European Council working groups. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Development’s Europe Department. The UK in a Changing Europe assisted with the commissioning of this piece

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