By Sam Macrory

21 Jul 2016

Britain's new prime minister Theresa May has vowed to "make a success" of Britain's historic decision to quit the European Union. But as Sir Nigel Sheinwald – the UK's former permanent representative to the European Union – tells Sam Macrory, that will no easy task

Squeezed in between a bar and pharmacy on a street in Brussels’ European quarter are the offices of the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union. This is the team which represents the UK in negotiations that take place in the European Union, but since the UK voted on June 23rd to leave the EU, those negotiations will now focus on making Brexit a reality.

As the UK’s ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union from 2000 to 2003, Sir Nigel Sheinwald knows just how complicated, nuanced and strained those negotiations will be.

“Between now and the time we leave, and no one knows how long that will be, it may be a minimum of two years and may well go on very much longer than that, the job of British ambassador to the EU will be absolutely essential, requiring an extremely senior person”, says Sheinwald of a post currently held by Sir Ivan Rogers. 

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Sheinwald, who also served as Tony Blair’s foreign policy and defence adviser and then as the UK’s ambassador to the US, had argued for Britain to remain in the UK. He has deep concerns about the referendum result, but with leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove, the man who proclaimed that the public had “had enough of experts”, banished to the backbenches by Theresa May, Sheinwald is hopeful that people will listen to his advice about what needs to happen next.

“It was an unwelcome comment from someone who was then a senior minster,” says Sheinwald of Gove’s expert analysis. 

“The public don’t want a civil service under the thumb of ministers or in any sense pumping out material which is anything other than well-researched and documented, but the public does like expertise. The public at large are more likely to trust that than the views of people who are highly ideological, whether it’s in the media or politics.”

"Pleasantly surprised"

So what happens next? To officially leave the EU the UK must invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, but the new prime minister and her senior ministerial colleagues are in no rush. Instead they would prefer to negotiate first, not pressing the Brexit button until some alternative future for Britain is ready to click into gear.

The EU is divided over how much space, and time, to allow the UK to map out a Brexit route, but Sheinwald believes that it has already “had a dividend” by allowing the Conservative Party to work out its own leaders succession and will be “pleasantly surprised by the earlier arrival of a new British prime minister.”

With Theresa May now installed in Downing Street, the EU will now demand, with German chancellor Angela Merkel calling for a 'certain timeline' to be established.

“I think they will now expect Theresa May and her government to start thinking about the options pretty quickly… they will hope that when everyone gets back from a break in the summer they will start to see a timetable emerging,” argues Sheinwald, adding: “They will be disappointed if we’re not able to invoke Article 50 at some point during the autumn.”

Before those formal negotiations begin, he says, it will be “inevitable that there will be some informal contact”, and despite other EU countries insisting that no such talks will occur Sheinwald is adamant that they will. 

“Those behind-the-scenes discussions will and should take place, to have an early think about the options facing us… I think that’s an essential part of the new British government finding out a little bit more about where the boundary lines of the future negotiations might be.”

Asked whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the domestic civil service is equipped for the task ahead, Sheinwald accepts that “we will need to recreate, after 40 years of membership of the EU, a cadre of trade negotiators so that we are able to run a number of parallel trade negotiations with the big world trading powers”. 

Perhaps we could simply bus them in? But the idea of a loan of negotiators – there have been reports that New Zealand would be willing to dispatch a team to British shores –  does not convince him. “I don’t think that alone will solve the requirements that we will have if, as I think we will, we will have an ambitious desire to create a whole set of international trade relationships if we leave the EU.”

"We’re going to have work hard to build up our relationships – and I think that means some strengthening of our diplomacy and security presence round the world" – Sir Nigel Sheinwald

Aside from the shortfall of expert negotiators, is the civil service actually equipped for the post-Brexit landscape? In the days after CSW's interview, May announced the creation of an International Trade Department and confirmed the formation of a Department for Exiting the European Union under David Davis, with Treasury staff already sounded out for interest in applying to work at the Brexit department. Sheinwald is both cautious and concerned, warning that “this [Brexit] would be a massive political and legislative task even if our government structures hadn’t been reduced by the austerity of recent years.”

So instead of the austerity measures which have seen the civil service headcount markedly reduced, Sheinwald believes that there will need to be a beefing up of “our bilateral embassies around the rest of the EU” and argues that going it alone means that, in terms of British relations with countries like China and India, “we’re going to have work hard to build up our relationships – whether it is economic or in the broader foreign policy and diplomatic arena, with those countries – and I think that means some strengthening of our diplomacy and security presence round the world.”

"Expertise and judgment"

This interview was conducted before May had put together her first Cabinet, sparing Sheinwald the chance to reveal if he is among the ranks of those whose jaws dropped at her decision to appoint Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. But he is concerned that the Foreign Office has been weakened by the new prime minister’s decision to create a Brexit department.

“As far as the Foreign Office is concerned I don’t think it’s a good idea, in the long run, to detach Europe from our foreign ministry,” he argues. “No other foreign ministry in Europe does it that way. I wouldn’t like to see a foreign ministry from which the subject of Europe and European foreign policy and security operations, as well as the economic and business aspects, are somehow removed. I think that would be a weakening of our government overall.”

"I don’t think it’s a good idea, in the long run, to detach Europe from our foreign ministry" – Sir Nigel Sheinwald​

Perhaps May had been listening to the more ardent pro-Brexit voices arguing that the Foreign Office is “fanatically pro-EU” and liable to water down Brexit talks. Sheinwald dismisses the charge, but points out that civil servants’ advice will always focus on what is best for Britain.

“Civil servants remain servants of the government of the day and they will take their cue from what the prime minister and other ministers say… but they will also have, as part of their duty, to match the political aims of the government with our longer term interests. That is the job of the civil service: to look ahead and give honest advice to ministers. That advice will plainly not be accepted if it appears to go against the will of the people on the 23rd June or the broad framework set by the new government, but it’s right that the civil service should be able to give advice and to offer ministers options.”

So is Whitehall populated by “fanatically pro-EU” civil servants?

“There will be civil servants who voted to stay and civil servants who voted to leave. But most civil servants involved in policy believe they are professional and bring expertise and judgement to what they are doing.”  

Having served as our man in Washington, Sheinwald is also concerned by the effects of Brexit on UK-US relations. During the referendum campaign President Obama warned that Brexit could shove Britain to “the back of the queue” in future trade talks, and Sheinwald believes that prediction may not be far off the mark.

“I don’t know about back of the queue, I would hope we would do better than that, but you couldn’t expect the UK to jump over the other countries…  We have to realise that although we are a significant economy we don’t have the trade clout or scale that a regional bloc has.”

And with Britain out of the EU, the US, believes Sheinwald, will look across the channel to “pump additional  efforts into their relationship with France and Germany, the two countries in their different ways will be the most influential in the EU once the UK has left.”

So will the special relationship survive Brexit? “It will change…” Sheinwald warns. “The reality is it remains very significant... but no doubt it is less important in the world than at the time of Churchill and his immediate successors. It has had a declining importance and I think that will continue and will unfortunately be given another boost by us leaving the EU.”

For now, the immediate question is how well the UK will survive leaving the EU. The negotiations of the coming months and years may well determine the answer. If Sir Nigel Sheinwald is right, efforts to make Brexit work may well be good news for the FCO and across Whitehall, with the pressing need to employ a new generation of negotiators and strenghten embassies across Europe, and the wider world.

As for the team around Britain’s permanent representative to the EU, that office, currently squeezed in between a bar and pharmacy, may eventually be squeezed out of existence all together.


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