The formulation of Brexit policy on both sides of the negotiations – UK and European Union – will not be conducted by prime ministers and presidents in the twenty-eight member states of the EU.
The detailed planning, discussions and final agreement will be dependent policy-making expertise within the ranks of civil servants and functionnaires within UK government departments and ministries and the European Council and European Commission.
For the UK, the negotiations for the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the remaining twenty-seven member states of the United Kingdom will be influenced, to a great extent, by the level of expertise within the British civil service.
Prior to the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017, the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as UK Ambassador to the European Union and his departing email to staff highlighted some of the key issues facing the British government as it bolsters the number of civil servants involved.
The long-standing convention that civil servants, however senior, must be independent from their political masters in government, has served the United Kingdom well since the mid-nineteenth century. Sir Ivan questioned whether the government actually appreciates independent advice and access to the vast experience of delivering bilateral and multilateral negotiation from Britain’s civil service.
Some senior EU officials, including European Council and European Commission officials supporting the EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier, have questioned the appointment of senior civil servants who are exclusively Brexit enthusiasts. Some UK politicians have also suggested that this marks a dangerous break with the convention of civil service impartiality in delivering government policy.
Clearly, UKREP – the United Kingdom body in Brussels responsible for negotiating the UK’s position on EU legislation (regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions) prior to approval by UK ministers and their counterparts in the EU – is in a state of unease about the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union.
This is understandable. UKREP has developed as a body over many decades since the UK joined the EU. It has been a difficult journey for the UK civil service in Brussels. The UK was effectively playing catch-up with the civil services of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands who shaped the bodies, processes and legislative procedures when they formed the EEC in 1957. To face the prospect of dismantling four decades of relationship building is counter-intuitive for those involved in international diplomacy.
This is the new reality for the UK. Politicians and civil servants will clash again over the coming months and years because the stakes are so high in the game of UK-EU diplomacy. Coupled with a second enormous diplomatic challenge – UK/US relations in the period of a Donald Trump presidency, this is a nervous time for the UK civil service.
Numbers are crucial. Staff numbers within the Department for Exiting the European Union- the lead department involved in preparing government ministers for the Brexit negotiations – have increased.
Civil servants within this department now exceed four-hundred, including senior civil servants seconded or permanently moved from other departments and recent recruitments. In March 2017 staffing stood at 322 according to Civil Service World. The Department for International Trade has a much larger contingent of staff – approximately 1200 civil servants. This includes staff involved in some of the key services for businesses seeking to export to markets outside of the UK, including export licences, trade missions and inward investment support. The staff involved directly in Brexit negotiations will be much smaller than this, but will be crucial in providing supporting data and other information to the lead department.
Whitehouse Consulting has put together a short summary of the experience of the key political and civil service figures who will be involved in the Brexit negotiations. This provides a helpful insight into the seriousness with which both sides of the negotiation are considering the process for conducting the negotiations.
In some respects, the mixture of politicians, civil servants and functionnaires involved provides a degree of certainty that the process of the negotiations will be conducted using existing models of policy-making, inherent in the development of the European Union and its institutions since 1957. This is a model that the UK government is keen to avoid. The UK does not want a process that follows the traditional path of EU policy-making, involving protracted discussions on the minutiae, concessions to individual member states, followed by frenetic horse-trading between EU leaders in the final days and hours before an agreement has to be concluded.
This was the model used prior to the UK referendum, when David Cameron was forced to negotiate into the early hours of the morning, to reach an agreement at the EU summit in February 2016.
Timing will be crucial. A Brexit agreement will have to be in place and ratified by member states and the European Parliament before March 2019.
The skill, experience and expertise of the civil servants and functionnaires involved will be crucial in achieving this for both sides of the negotiation.