The people of Britain, and their political leaders, do not appear to want stability in our relations with the European Union. So the civil service will be doing its job both to create turbulence, and to manage a way through it. Because of the divided views within political parties on Britain’s place in an integrating Europe, we have not really had an EU policy for some years. This makes the civil servant’s lot a delicate one; and it makes the future for Britain’s international business hard to read.
It was not always so. I remember going to Brussels for the first time as a civil servant, for a 1974 fisheries meeting, and wondering how in the world to look after the UK’s interests in handling a policy designed to hurt us – an example of how European wars are still fought in the negotiating chamber, and largely over economic matters. In 1985 I was part of the cabinet of Lord Cockfield, the British EU commissioner who was the real author of the single market. The UK had a very clear policy, dictated by Margaret Thatcher, which was to allow the EU to integrate sufficiently so that trade within the EU was as free as within the UK. The argument has raged ever since about what you need to harmonise, or make common, to have a genuine single market.
The best thing the civil service can do in the coming years is to try to complete Lord Cockfield’s original vision – by, for example, freeing trade in services and stopping state protectionism in areas such as energy. That is why I would always recommend going for the political benefits of having a British single market, competition or trade commissioner, rather than the apparent glory of a foreign affairs commissioner.
But there is a twist. The existence of the eurozone – which Britain is not going to join in the foreseeable future – creates a continual danger that British commercial interests will be sidelined or discriminated against. The civil service may not have an EU policy to implement, but it does have business interests to protect. Every time the eurozone wants to keep some privilege within its borders, the civil service has a battle to fight. We see this in financial services already, where the Treasury is to stop the concept that euro trading should properly take place within the eurozone. And soon we will be combating the idea that the free movement of goods and capital is only essential within the eurozone.
The civil service can do something else to bring a calmer view of the EU to Britain. UK voters would be less irritated by Brussels if fewer irritating things were done. Footling proposals for unnecessary legislation by underworked commissioners, wasted resources, an undemocratic and vainglorious parliament, the lack of an effective foreign and security policy – all these failings are for ministers to handle. But civil servants can do much inter alia to improve the quality of European law-making, its financial management, its policy making and the clarity of its language. The UK used to be very good at public administration, and is still pretty good. Exporting more of that to the EU would help.
To do all this, and to ensure British business has fair access to the marketplace, we need Anglo-Saxon attitudes in the European institutions. These are missing now in part because of political absence; but also because there are so few Britons working there. We used to be known as the best of European civil servants. Because of the closure of schemes to help Britons get into EU jobs, because of the lack of knowledge of foreign languages, and because the EU is so vilified in the media, young Britons are simply not in Brussels.
So, stability is something for the British people to decide they want. But protecting British interests will continue to be the civil servant’s lot – providing, of course, that someone can define what those interests are.
Sir Andrew Cahn is a vice chairman at Nomura International plc, and a former chief executive of UK Trade & Investment.
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