Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador the EU, has told MPs that civil servants across Whitehall must keep paying attention to new directives and policies being discussed in Brussels even as they plan for Brexit.
Rogers resigned from his post as ambassador in January, telling colleagues in a farewell email that they should continue to challenge “muddled thinking” and speak truth to power.
Speaking at the European Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday, Rogers (pictured above, centre) told MPs that departments must not stop focusing on EU business despite the pressures of Brexit.
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“You have to pay attention to the daily business and the daily passage of directives because others are, frankly, looking at opportunities to land things in directives in the next few years which they know are going to cause us difficulties … and we have to be on it," he said.
However, he warned that in the months after the EU referendum there had been a “diminution of Whitehall attention and effort on day-to-day dossiers”.
The UK government has repeatedly stated that it will continue to play a full role in the EU until Brexit takes place.
Prime minister Theresa May did not attend a meeting of the European Council late last year, but Sir Ivan told MPs he had “fought tooth and nail” to ensure that UK officials remained in the room as EU directives and other policies were discussed.
But he said there had already been a change in the status of UK representatives among their EU counterparts.
“There is no question that other member states looking at us differently than a year ago,” he said.
He also warned that staff at the UK Representation to the EU (UKREP) were increasingly telling him they had no instructions from Whitehall departments about what positions they should take in EU meetings.
“We are getting less and less of good quality from departments because they are inundated,” he said.
He said he wanted to be “utterly clear” that he was not criticising his former colleagues, adding: “People are run off their feet and working enormously hard both at ministerial and senior official level."
But he said: “People are so stretched with dealing with Brexit, and departmental boards and departmental ministers are understandably going hell for leather for what they want the world to look like after Brexit.”
And the former ambassador said Whitehall could not continue to neglect day-to-day EU business.
“I said repeatedly at mandarin level – and I know DExEU are working on this incessantly: 'that’s not good enough'. You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time; you have to be dealing with day-to-day dossiers.
They matter every bit as much as they did. Until we leave, we are full members and we have to make good on that.”
"I never leak"
Rogers came under scrutiny last year when it was reported that he had warned ministers that fellow EU member states believed a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK could take up to a decade to finalise, and could be rejected by individual European parliaments.
But the former top diplomat told the committee that he had “never said it would take ten years” to negotiate a deal, but rather was reporting the “senior beltway wisdom” around the EU that trade negotiations would not be ratified until the mid-2020s.
Rogers categorically denied that he had leaked this advice to the BBC, saying: “To be very clear I never leak, I never have, never would never have under any government and the origin of this has nothing to do with me.”
The ex-ambassador also reiterated the message set out in his resignation email about the crucial role UKREP staff will play in negotiations over Brexit.
Staff in UKREP are “the biggest single collection of expertise on negotiating with the 27 [member states] that the country has,” he said.
Asked by one committee member about the best way to manage negotiations at an official level, he said: “My advice has been you need a really top class negotiation team across each individual area of the acquis [EU law]."
These individuals will need to report up to their line departments, he said, but crucially must also report up to the prime minsiter and Brexit secretary David Davis through the “Sherpa level” – that is, through DExEU perm sec Oliver Robbins.
This dual accountability would be vital to ensure that the prime minister can make decisions – “seriously and quickly” during negotiations, he said, particularly when trade-offs must be made between competing departmental interests.