In her first interview as permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade, Antonia Romeo tells Richard Johnstone about the progress already made, and the Brexit challenges to come, for this brand new ministry.
In Antonia Romeo’s office at the Department for International Trade, right next to her desk, is a poster that reads: “Keep Calm and Carry On Transforming”. This Whitehall twist on the classic wartime slogan is a memento from Romeo’s time at the Ministry of Justice, but it is fitting for the permanent secretary of one of the key Brexit departments, given how frequently leaving the European Union is described as government’s biggest challenge since 1945.
DIT exists because of the vote to leave the EU last June: it was founded in the tumult following the referendum as one of incoming prime minister Theresa May’s two dedicated departments for the task. The Department for Exiting the European Union would do what it said on the nameplate, while DIT would create new trade arrangements as the UK left those that had been agreed as part of the European bloc.
Romeo was named DIT chief in January, taking over from Sir Martin Donnelly who had helped establish the department. She arrived after a stint as the UK’s consul general in New York, where she also served as UK Trade & Investment’s director general for economic and commercial affairs in the US.
The latter post came under DIT’s ambit following its foundation – indeed Romeo calls the job running North America DIT – so she had a clear view of the department that “definitely colours what I want to do”, she tells CSW.
In particular, bringing the department’s three key elements – the UKTI and UK Export Finance teams that predated the department with an expanded Whitehall trade function formed from a small policy group – closer together is an early priority.
“One of the things that I wanted to do as soon as I started was think about how those joins were working,” she says. “My predecessor had built up a sense of collegiality but it is important for me that we really join that up so it feels like a crucial department of state right at the heart of the government’s agenda.”
The department has some time to get these arrangements right. Negotiations over the future trading relationship with the EU itself are being led by DExEU while, under the terms of the UK’s EU membership, deals with other countries cannot be signed before departure – and perhaps not until the end of any transition arrangements.
DIT is using this time to put in place the building blocks for future arrangements, including creating a trade negotiation capacity that the UK hasn’t had in over 40 years.
There are now more than 300 people – up from 45 initially – working in the trade policy group that Romeo calls “the engine for those discussions”. This team is being led by the newly-appointed chief trade negotiation advisor, and the department’s second permanent secretary, Crawford Falconer.
“Everyone here will tell you that one of my big priorities is collaboration, and that’s within the department and it is also across Whitehall”
Romeo says the civil service has responded very enthusiastically to what is essentially the creation of a new function, with applications from “the best and brightest in Whitehall”.
She compares this to other areas – like commercial or digital – where the civil service has proven itself adept at developing new skills.
“Fifteen years ago the civil service was unrecognisable in terms of those skills,” she notes. “Now we have a huge amount of expertise in those areas and the way we deliver public services is completely different.
“It is the same for trade – we don’t have a huge number already who were trade experts because we haven’t been doing this for 40 years. That is the capability we have got to build.”
Although Romeo acknowledges the department is “not thinking that there are going to be a huge number of trade deals tomorrow”, she insists it is not marking time until Brexit Day in March 2019.
Already the department is undertaking scoping discussions on new trade deals with 16 countries, grouped into 11 trade working groups (see box opposite), and it is also tasked with boosting trade across the whole economy. “We have got nearly £1 trillion of inward investment that we are looking after, and we have got [only] 10-11% of British companies exporting so we need to increase that in terms of value as well as volume of exporters,” Romeo says. “There’s a huge amount to do, and alongside that we have got a lot of work to do to create new market access arrangements and, eventually, some free trade deals with new countries outside the EU.”
The prospect of these new deals has already grabbed headlines after a Cabinet row over chlorine-dipped chicken broke out between environment secretary Michael Gove (who is against importing chicken treated with the American food hygiene method) and DIT secretary Liam Fox (who noted Americans had been safely eating it for years).
Jill Rutter, a programme director at the Institute for Government, says this “bizarre chicken spat” shows why the expanded trade profession must be able to coordinate policy across government in areas as diverse as financial services, food and pharmaceuticals.
“The trade profession will need to be able to build its capacity across other government departments, so it is not just the Department for International Trade that does this work,” Rutter tells CSW.
Ironically, given the feathers that flew when Fox (and Gove) got among the chickens this summer, Rutter notes the process of establishing UK positions is one part of trade deals Whitehall does have experience in. The small trade directorate that existed before DIT was created focused on influencing EU policy rather than bilateral agreements.
“There’s already quite a lot of negotiation of trade priorities in government,” she says. “A lot is done to understand the needs of different sectors, so we have strong team of economists looking at that, and a lot of this is the building blocks you need for trade, so it is not completely unfamiliar.”
However, the IfG’s Taking back control of trade policy report, published in May, found departments were in “quite different positions” about thinking through the detail that will be needed in the post-Brexit world, Rutter adds.
“That may have changed now, but some gave it more priority than others,” she says. “DIT needs to deal with that and make sure there are processes in place – no one is going to negotiate with a government that doesn’t seem to have its own line straight.”
Asked how the department is developing relationships across Whitehall, Romeo tells CSW that “each department knows what it is leading on, but almost everything is linked with a lot of other departments”. In addition to DExEU, she namechecks a panoply of other ministries – among them the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Treasury – involved even at this early stage.
Some departments will want to hold DIT to account in getting the best trade deals – and rightly so, says Romeo.
“We need to be completely open about what we are doing with other departments and particularly with the centre,” she says.
Romeo on… pre-Brexit trade talks
DIT has established 11 working groups, covering 16 countries to begin scoping possible post-Brexit deals, Romeo says. “We will, in the period of transition [from the EU],” be able to talk to countries, she adds.
“We’re already talking about potential new market access arrangements.”
These are areas where DIT will aim to make progress ahead of the full range of negotiation powers, by looking at where agreements could happen quickly.
“There are some fruitful areas for potential early agreement, and there are others where it is going to take us a while to work up with countries where we might want to get to,” Romeo says. “We are not focusing just on the idea of doing the deal, it is about looking at a whole raft of ways we can increase market access with non-EU countries, and in some areas we actually already have competence to do that.
“The things you look at in trade deals are the economies, the current situation in terms of the similarity of your regulations but also the current trade position. So I don’t think we are looking at a one-size-fits-all approach, it will be about discovering which areas are really fertile, where we could get agreement swiftly and where there is a win-win.”
The scale of coordination required could be daunting but Romeo – whose previous roles include running the economic and domestic secretariat (EDS) in the Cabinet Office which lies at the centre of many cross-government projects – says this is “sort of how Whitehall makes things happen”.
She recalls that “when you’re EDS, what you want is departments to have really sorted out the problems before they come to you”, so she is working to “agree as much as possible before they end up in the lap of EDS or anyone else”.
Collaboration is one of the hallmarks of Romeo’s career. Senior civil servants who have worked with her tell CSW that she is bright and energetic, and has done a number of jobs within Whitehall that prepare her for the role, including in trade promotion and economic diplomacy.
Asked what projects from her career might provide lessons for the work ahead, Romeo names her work as director general of criminal justice at the MoJ.
“I worked very closely with the director general of crime at the Home Office, because criminal justice and crime absolutely go together, to ensure we had one shared ambition to join up and digitise the criminal justice system.
“To get that joint working – and it is not always perfect but you work at it – it is very important that you get to know the people concerned and spend a lot of time with your counterpart but also that you encourage your teams. Everyone here will tell you that one of my big priorities is collaboration, and that’s within the department and it is also across Whitehall.”
Romeo on… diversity
After just a year away from Whitehall, working in the US, Romeo says she noticed an improvement in the diversity of the civil service upon her return. “I think the civil service has come a huge distance on all aspects of diversity since I joined 17 years ago but even since I’ve been away.”
She says she is now keen to play her part as a perm sec, and highlights much had already been achieved in the department before her arrival.
“It is completely brilliant being in the position where you are running a department and you feel that you can turbocharge things that you have always wanted to turbocharge,” she says.
“I have to say that I have worked for a number of bosses who were massive promoters of diversity and inclusion – be it Jeremy Heywood, Ursula Brennan, Suma Chakrabarti – so I have never felt that, ‘if only I was there, I would do a lot more than they were’,” she says.
She adds that she was excited to help launch an LGBT group for the department in her second week in post. “I’m just lucky to be involved in so far as I can help by lending myself to it, but I wouldn’t pretend that I’ve come in and done these amazing things, because this is what the team is already doing.”
At the IfG, Rutter thinks the scale is such that there will be a need for a trade plan of similar stature to the national security strategy – “a centrally coordinated plan that sets out an agreed view of what the risks are then tasks different parts of the system with managing those risks”.
She notes that trade priorities will need to follow from the government’s industrial strategy to both ensure businesses are prepared to take advantage of the market access agreements and deal with the fallout if any sectors are disadvantaged.
“We think there is a big need for some genuinely hefty central machinery and for DIT to be executing an agreed cross-government set of priorities.”
But even with perfect collaboration that avoids a run of chicken headlines, trade deals are long, complex, and difficult. Witness the EU’s recent agreement with Canada after a decade of talks, or last year’s seeming collapse of the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership after five years of detailed discussions, to see how even the experienced can struggle.
To quote that poster by her desk, how does Romeo plan to keep calm when these sapping processes start in earnest – both for herself and the staff in the department?
“I have worked in a lot of sapping jobs, but very enjoyable they all were,” she says with a chuckle. “I think that you have got to be disciplined about how you’re spending your time, but critically it is about the team.
“This is why I have mentioned capability probably about 25 times in this conversation and ensuring you’ve got the right team – the top team and also the wider team – that understands the strategy and feels equipped and motivated to do it. Those are hugely important parts of my job as leader. Then it almost doesn’t matter – be it a trade deal, be it criminal justice, be it economic and domestic affairs, be it technology – if everybody is aligned then I think a lot of those problems go away.”
If Romeo mentions capability frequently in her chat to CSW, she mentions the privilege of her job just as often. It’s clear that she – an economist by background – is excited to help post-Brexit Britain realise its trade potential.
“One of the things that struck me when I started was the privilege of working right at the heart of what the government is doing now at a completely new department of state working under a secretary of state with a really enthusiastic and highly motivated team.
“We are all so privileged to be here doing this because it is right in the heart of what the government is trying to do and so important for the country.”
Antonia Romeo biography
Romeo has held a number of posts since joining the civil service in 2000. Initially an economist, her first senior role was in 2006 at the Ministry of Justice as principal private secretary to the lord chancellor and secretary of state for Justice Lord Falconer, where she spent two years.
From there she moved to become director of policy at the Foreign Office, before her first job in the centre of Whitehall as the Cabinet Office’s executive director for enterprise and reform in 2010. In this post, she was responsible for reforming the government’s governance and board model as well as working with businesses.
Romeo returned to the MoJ in 2011 to lead its transformation plan across its departmental functions as well as the prison estate, and then took on wider responsibility for criminal justice reform in 2013, a role she highlights as having informed her approach to the DIT’s cross-Whitehall work.
Another spell in the centre followed in the high-profile Cabinet Office post as head of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat for nine months from February 2015 before her move to America as consul general in New York, and then as the government’s director general of economic and commercial affairs in the country.
Having worked in one of the government’s top pre-Brexit trade posts, Romeo was then appointed to head up DIT in January this year.