Civil service ‘not match fit for trade talks but EU deal can be reached in 2020’

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster on 17 December 2019 in News
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Former ministerial adviser joins calls for DExEU to be wound up after January Brexit day

Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker after the UK reached a revised Brexit deal with the EU in October. Photo: PA

Boris Johnson will be able to sign off on a "narrow and shallow" free trade agreement by the end of next year if he learns the lessons of Theresa May's time in office, her former top Europe adviser has said.

Raoul Raparel, who spent a year as May's special adviser on Europe and also advised David Davis as Brexit secretary, said the prime minister could secure a limited agreement by late 2020 with strong "central political direction".

Britain is set to exit the so-called 'implementation period' – when it was intended the Department for Exiting the European Union would negotiate a new trading relationship while the UK remains closely aligned to EU rules – by 31 December next year.


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The Conservative manifesto vowed not to extend that period following the UK’s likely departure from the EU in January, triggering a race to secure a new trade pact with the bloc in less than a year.

In a report for the Institute for Government think tank published yesterday, Ruparel warned that Whitehall is not yet set up to run complex Brexit negotiations.

Launching the report, he said: "The government and civil service have a lot of work to do if they are to prepare to leave with a deal – especially given Boris Johnson’s deadline of the end of 2020.

"As it stands, the UK does not yet appear ‘match-fit’ for the next phase of negotiations. There is a huge amount of work to be done to flesh out the detail of what the UK wants from its future relationship with the EU, and Whitehall is not yet ready to negotiate such a complex and wide-ranging agreement, nor implement it.

"But contrary to what many say, it is possible to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the EU by the end of next year."

Ruparel called for DExEU to be wound down, and for negotiations to be led by a new unit either in No.10, the Cabinet Office or in a beefed-up super-ministry joined with the Department for International Trade, mirroring an IfG recommendation from last week.

Media reports from the weekend indicate that the government is considering such a move, with responsibility for negotiations over the UK's future relationship with the EU being led by the Cabinet Office.

Ruparel said such a system was needed because government preparations for trade talks had so far been done “often without any central co-ordination or direction”.

"This means much of it may not in the end have much bearing on reality or may actually conflict with the work other parts of government have done,” he said.

"There urgently needs to be central political direction and decisions on the detail of the future relationship and the overarching strategy for the next phase – this should all then be turned into legal text as soon as possible (to help the UK get on the front foot)."

He also urged Johnson to develop a "better communications operations and a clear public narrative" on the aims for the UK’s future relationship with the bloc, and to involve parliament, stakeholders and the public in the progress of the negotiations.

This could include getting parliament to approve the government’s negotiation mandate, as envisioned in the withdrawal agreement bill that stalled before the election, or systematic consultation with stakeholders from industries about the priorities for the talks.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who is responsible for cross-government Brexit planning and has been tipped for a key role in trade talks, said it would be possible to reach a trade agreement with the EU by the 2020 deadline.

Appearing on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Gove said: "Quite a lot of the detail that we need to negotiate is already laid out in the political declaration, so a lot of work has been done.

"And as a number of people have pointed out, there are areas where the European Union’s interests and the United Kingdom’s interests are already closely aligned, so I’m confident that we will be able not just to leave the EU on 31 January but also to conclude all the details of a new relationship in short order."

Asked whether Johnson would break his promise not to extend the current transition period, the Cabinet Office minister said: "Nope."

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Matt Honeycombe-Foster
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Matt Honeycombe-Foster is news editor of CSW's sister site PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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