The government is not “match fit” for the next phase of Brexit negotiations, Theresa May’s former special adviser on exiting the EU has said.
Raoul Ruparel, who was credited with coming up with the Northern Ireland solution which helped Boris Johnson seal a Brexit deal with the EU, says lessons need to be learned from the mistakes of May’s government.
“As it stands, the UK does not yet appear ‘match-fit’ for the next phase of negotiations,” he says.
“There is a huge amount of work to be done to flesh out the detail of what the UK wants from its future relationship with the EU, and Whitehall is not yet ready to negotiate such a complex and wide-ranging agreement, nor implement it.”
May’s former adviser says that contrary to what many believe “it is possible to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU by the end of next year”.
But he warns that it could only be “narrow” in scope.
In a report for the Institute for Government, Ruparel is scathing about the UK’s approach to negotiations in the first phase.
The “real error was the UK never properly considered what approach and structure would suit its own goals best or put forward an alternative” while the EU was constantly on the front foot, with policy decisions translated into legal text before the UK had worked out its own position.
He also says much of the work done under the May government in Whitehall will now be irrelevant.
His words echo advice from many trade deal experts who say the UK has to learn from its mistakes and set out its wishlists and red lines clearly and publicly as is the convention in international negotiations.
The EU has already indicated its red lines before the new government has even got to work on precisely who, or what government department, will lead its negotiations.
Talks in February will open with an EU demand of alignment with union rules.
EU leaders warned on Friday that the price of a quick deal including tariff-free access to the single market would be agreeing to the level playing field on workers’ rights and environmental protections.
Ruparel says one of the main decisions facing Johnson is whether he wants an overarching ambitious deal, known as a “mixed agreement”, covering the entire gamut of the future political relationship, including security, data, aviation, science and education.
That would take years to negotiate.
The alternative is a deal that “only engages with EU exclusive competence”, one that would only require approval of the commission and the parliament and not individual governments which, for example, took a year to ratify the EU-Canada deal.
The latter would “limit the scope of any agreement, resulting in what might be termed a shallow and narrow future relationship”, he warns.
At the moment Whitehall is not set up for a wide-ranging and complex negotiation, he says. There has been speculation that the Department for Exiting the EU could fold, and Ruparel says it is likely that the department will have to be wound down. “Since its inception, the department has suffered from a poorly defined role,” he says.
Ruparel says there are three options for negotiations: run a narrow central unit out of No 10 or the Cabinet Office with expert advice feeding in from across Whitehall; set up a larger unit within the Cabinet Office with sufficient expertise to challenge other Whitehall departments; or revamp the Department for International Trade.
Given the limited time to build the team and seal a comprehensive deal with the EU, one option would be to pursue a phased deal.
This would mean a targeted narrow Brexit deal by the end of 2020, as the building blocks for “a more ambitious and comprehensive relationship” over time.
This, Ruparel warns, would not be supported by businesses, who would favour just one change to their supply chains and operations.