Britain’s departed ambassador to the EU has called the government’s exit negotiations a “humongous” task, as he warned of the likely name-calling and “feisty” talks with the bloc’s 27 members during the two-year Brexit process.
Sir Ivan Rogers, who abruptly departed as the UK’s man in Brussels last month, said the task of extricating Britain from the EU would be an “unprecedentedly large negotiation on a scale we haven’t experienced probably ever and certainly not since the Second World War”.
As one of the UK government’s most experienced negotiators in Brussels, Sir Ivan developed a reputation as one of the most pessimistic voices on Britain’s ability to negotiate a swift free trade deal after the Brexit vote.
He attracted criticism from eurosceptics after a press report said he had warned that it would take up to a decade to agree a trade deal after the vote.
But Sir Ivan vigorously denied the reports, claiming those were the views of the key member states and the EU institutions about the length of negotiations.
“I never used 10 years. What I did was report what I was getting at senior levels…inside all the institutions and key member states”, Sir Ivan told MPs on Wednesday.
“I have not found a single person at senior levels who has diverged from that view”, he added.
The former ambassador, who has now left the civil service, said his assessment from the UK’s negotiating partners was that talks over negotiating a free trade deal would only start in late 2017 and ratification through all national and regional parliaments was likely in the “mid-2020s”.
That view was a “summary of the senior beltway wisdom” within the EU and its major capitals he said, but added Britain would “undoubtedly” be able to strike free-trade deals with countries outside the EU far quicker than with the bloc.
Sir Ivan also revealed to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee what he thought the five main negotiating priorities would be for the EU’s 27:
- Disentanglement of the UK from the EU budget: “[This] might be in the order of €40bn-€60bn in origin”
- The acquired rights issues of EU citizens here and UK citizens in the EU
- Where EU agencies are located, e.g. the European Banking Authority: “There will be a huge bun fight where they end up”
- What happens to international treaties to which the EU and the UK are signatories
- Transitional arrangements: “I have argued repeatedly for months, taking into account the framework, you can’t have a proper withdrawal treaty unless you know where you are going. How on earth can you draw up a withdrawal treaty if you don’t know where you are going. This is all one ball of wax. The first argument will be what we are actually negotiating about”.
Sir Ivan warned the UK’s imminent departure was seen as having “exploded a bomb” under the EU’s financial liabilities – with Britain likely to continue contributing to its share of the bloc’s budget until 2019 at the earliest.
Responding to the prime minister’s claim that “no deal” was better than a “bad deal”, Sir Ivan cautioned against thinking walking away would be easy after more than 40 years of membership where EU law had seeped into every “nook and cranny” of Britain’s constitutional fabric.
“You’ve got to work through every area of British economic life. What does the default to WTO terms really mean and where does it really take you?” he said, calling MPs to develop a “stone cold sober analysis” of not agreeing terms of EU market access after the end of the two-year talks.
Resorting to the WTO trade terms would also mean the EU would have “no appetite” to thrash out a free trade deal, he added.
Sir Ivan responded to criticism he was responsible for “downgrading” David Cameron’s renegotiation ambitions before the referendum, arguing the aims were agreed by the Conservative government.
The former Treasury mandarin admitted he was “notorious” within the corridors of Whitehall for thinking the British people would leave the EU.
“I had been thinking about post-Brexit Britain and I told my best and opposite numbers ‘don’t underestimate [the likelihood of a leave vote]“.
On his own decision to resign, Sir Ivan said he had thought “long and hard” over when to leave his post “at some point around Christmas” and before the triggering of Article 5o to allow a new negotiating team to see the Brexit process through to the end.
EU leaders will be meeting in Malta in an informal summit on Friday.