Ivan Rogers: Brexit trade negotiators face ‘asymmetric’ struggle

Written by Jim Dunton on 30 October 2017 in News

Former ambassador to EU warns MPs the UK faces talent and data imbalance against backdrop of Article 50 process

Ivan Rogers (right) with then prime minister David Cameron Credit: PA

The UK’s former ambassador to the European Union has told MPs they should be under no illusions over the uphill struggle Whitehall’s negotiators will face in agreeing post-Brexit trade deals with Brussels counterparts.

Sir Ivan Rogers said that while he was sure the UK was assembling the best talent it could, they would face veteran negotiators who had the added advantage of 40 years’ worth of institutional knowledge on the UK’s priorities across a range of sectors.

Giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, Rogers – who resigned from his UK REP role in January – said the UK was embarking on an unprecedented task pitted against an organisation that essentially “does negotiating for a living”.


“The commission is quite a small bureaucracy and quite a senior bureaucracy,” he said.

“It is not a delivery organisation like many departments of state, and it is stuffed full of people who are very experienced at how you negotiate and at negotiating techniques and dealing with member states.

“Alongside the vastly more experienced people coming to the table, you have the separate problem which is that there is an asymmetry of information which always works in favour of the people in Brussels.”

Rogers said that by definition, Brussels knew the position of its members states on all trade issues and was at a strategic advantage.

“They have been sitting at the heart of the spider’s web for a very long time,” he said.

“If you have been dealing, in DG MOVE [the directorate-general for mobility and transport], with the aviation dossier, for example, you know perfectly well where the Brits are coming from and why they are coming from there and what they care about, and you know that of all your other people around the table.

“You are at a systematic advantage compared with your British interlocutor. This is not something that you cannot deal with over time but there is a massive learning curve for people negotiating on the UK side of the table up against people who do this for a living and have been doing it forever and have been negotiating aviation deals with Ukraine followed by Chile and others.

“By definition, they know what they are doing. They have technology and they have a process. All of that has to be built on the UK side. I am sure it is being built — that is the job — but it is a huge challenge when Whitehall has plenty else to do. It cannot just have its entire time consumed by Brexit.”

Elsewhere, Rogers told Treasury Committee members that prime minister Theresa May’s decision to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before agreeing the sequencing of the exit process it would trigger had “screwed” the UK’s negotiating position.

“You had to say, ‘I will invoke Article 50, but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate. It has got to operate like this, otherwise this is not going to work for me’,” he said.

“That is not what we did. That is a matter of history. We are where we are.

“They have set up the sequencing exactly as you would predict that they would set up the sequencing, because if you were in their shoes that is exactly what you would do.

“You would think, ‘Let us maximise the pressure on the British side to move on money and squeeze as hard as possible, because the debate they really want to have is about the future partnership.”

On the issue of a “no deal” Brexit, Rogers said proponents of such a departure from the EU invariably meant conducting future relations via a series of mini-deals, rather than an a cliff-edge move.

“I have looked at all the no deal literature at the moment,” he said. “I have extensively gone through every argument in favour of no deal that I have been able to examine.

“Everybody talking about no deal does not mean no deal. They mean when we get to the wire there would be a succession of mini-deals that we would be able to negotiate, and that the other side would be willing to negotiate.

“They would assure us of very significant continuity in all the areas that we would be most concerned about, ranging  from electricity interconnectors, to financial services, to data protection, to whatever.

“I have not seen anybody actually advocate no deal, because they know that jumping into a legal void without any legal provisions in any of these areas is potentially very damaging.”

Rogers concluded: “I am very pro having a contingency plan, but the contingency plan has to be really brutally road tested against the reality of what the other side of the channel would do in circumstances of a breakdown in the talks.”

Share this page

Further reading in our policy hubs

Add new comment

Contact the author

The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

Related Articles