Four key findings in the new Brexit report

Brexit: from European FoI to a rebellion in the civil service
Brexit: from European FoI to a rebellion in the civil service
Ian Dunt By

Today's report by UK in a Changing Europe, one of the most reliable organisations mapping out the future of Brexit, contains several jaw-dropping nuggets of information. Just when you think everything had been revealed about the nuclear fallout of the vote, some researchers come along and highlight something extraordinary.

I’ve included four of the most interesting thoughts here, although I'd recommend you read the full report - it shows a deep intuitive understanding of how the power dynamics of Brexit are likely to evolve over the next decade. There's some great stuff in there on the constitutional train wreck about to hit us and many other aspects of the divorce. But for this piece I've restricted myself to the arguments I'd simply never seen before.

Hard Brexiters and hard Europeans may have similar interests

Article 50 is jam-packed with things to do, but there are really three main strands: admin, like who pays off MEPs, who still owes what etc; legal, like what are we going to do about the haunting black hole about to erupt into our legislation, what do we do about the jurisdiction of the EU regulators etc; and future relationships, like trade and security cooperation and the like. Of all these strands, there are really two types: Things which are about now and things which are about the future.


Some want to split these talks up and hold them simultaneously (some might argue that they must run in sequence, but they are in a minority). Others will want to roll them into one.

Rolling them into one makes sense. After all, if you change your law on competition, that affects future trade. And a trade deal will rely on how far Britain maintains equivalency status, which hinges on recognition of European regulators. Everything affects everything else, like a clock mechanism or a Rubik's Cube.

However, as soon as you roll everything up, it all becomes much more complicated. Issues will roll over one another in a massive network of two-way causal chains and worse, the different aspects have different authorisation procedures - qualified majority for the divorce, universal agreement from member states for the future deals. It's not that wrapping things up makes everything more complicated. It's that wrapping things up highlights just how complicated things are anyway.

It's for this reason that the report concludes that hard Brexiters will prefer multiple negotiations. They can pretend it's all simpler than it really is. But here's the interesting part: so may hard Europeans. As the report says, "it is at least conceivable that this might lead to a congruence of interests behind the 'multiple negotiations' option between the EU and the UK's 'quick Brexiters'".

Those EU figures who want Britain out fast and the whole thing done with, who are exasperated and angry at the UK being such a pain for so long, will be in total agreement with the hard Brexit lot, and could win the day in Brussels. This could be very dangerous. We have a weak negotiating hand and they have multiple vetoes. If this is all wrapped up quickly, it’s because we're getting a bad deal. And yet the hard Brexit brigade will embrace that as a fast route out and confirmation that Brussels really is a wrong 'un after all.

Cameron's own legislation makes a second referendum likely

The report makes a fascinating observation. Back in 2011, David Cameron passed a bill to assure eurosceptics that there would be a referendum if any further powers are transferred to Brussels. It was the European Union Act 2011. Section 4(1)(i) states that a vote must be held if the new treaty confers "any power on any EU institution to impose a requirement or obligation on the UK".

That's interesting, because a new treaty could easily state that British authorities had to carry out instructions from EU institutions on financial services, say, as a condition for single market access. The granting of equivalency status which would be part of securing passporting for the City would almost certainly have some sort of provision like that concerning the European financial supervisory authorities. But if so, that triggers another referendum.

Still, Remainers should not rejoice. This would be happening in a scenario in which Britain was trying to maintain a close relationship, so it means any future referendum would probably come down to either accepting that deal or committing to a hard Brexit. And anyway, the government could always amend that section of the Act. But it would be delicious to see them change legislation to give the British public less of a say over powers transferring to Brussels in order to execute their plan to transfer powers back from Brussels because the public said so.

There could be an informal civil service rebellion

Officially, the civil service will do the bidding of ministers and try to help deliver on this crazily vast and explosive project. But unofficially, things might get murky. Civil servants are typically youngish city-dwellers. In other words, not the type of people who voted Leave. And their discomfort might go further. "In terms of loyalty," the report states, "it is questionable whether those civil servants that have devoted their careers to 'make the EU work' will enthusiastically engage in dissolving the very regimes they helped to create."

There is another element here. The government is suddenly hiring lots of very highly paid trade experts, who will be sitting alongside these civil servants day-by-day. This happens often with management consultants and civil servants often get very demotivated when they find out that the bloke next to them is being charged out at day rates similar to what they make in a month. Here, the tensions could be even more severe.

The report concludes: "There will be tensions if there is any further bifurcation of salaries in Whitehall - for example, providing newly recruited trade negotiators (whose loyalty might be limited by the terms of their contract) with high rewards, leaving other Whitehall civil servants further behind after a near-decade of salary stagnation."

The civil service is facing the greatest challenge arguably in its history: an apocalypse of administrative, legal and trade tasks on a scale they could never have imagined would hit them. And there is plenty of reason to think that, underneath the loyal surface, they may not be ready to give their all for this brave new Brexit world.

European Freedom of Information rules OK

The British government approach to Brexit has been defined by absolute secrecy and a dribble of self-interested leaks from otherwise useless ministers. The report presumes that that will continue during negotiations, with Freedom of Information requests being turned down on the basis that they would prejudice relations with another state or with the devolved administrations. As the authors concluded, "such a position will allow us only to know what is formally disclosed (likely to be bland) or selectively leaked (likely to be self-serving)".

But here's the thing. The Europeans also have a Freedom of Information law. And they're also going to have a bunch of British documents. They can refuse disclosure on the basis that doing so might undermine protection of the financial, monetary or economic policy of the Union or any member state, but that's a rather weak argument. After all, as the report found, transparent sharing of information is less likely to disturb markets than "random leaks or hearsay".

If they refuse to disclose it, the case will go to the courts, in this case the general court. And British tabloids who have for years lionised the British parliament and attacked Brussels as this secretive Bonapartiste threat to British freedoms might find that actually they have been talked abject nonsense.

Or alternately, they might just blame immigrants somehow. Probably the latter.

You can read the full report here.

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