Sir Ivan Rogers Plays Cassandra Again, Warns of Likely 2020 Brexit Trade Negotiations Train Wreck

As you may wind up seeing tomorrow, I am bogged down in something that is both appalling and ridiculous, so forgive me for giving short shrift to another on of Sir Ivan Rogers’ well-reasoned, if dire, takes on the state of Brexit.

I’ve taken the liberty of posting his text in full; you can also read it at the University of Glasgow website, where he delivered his remarks yesterday.

The big message of Sir Ivan’s speech is that Boris Johnson, who Sir Ivan assumes will win in December and get his Brexit pact approved, is making a Theresa-May-level blunder by having repeatedly committed to getting a Brexit trade deal done by the end of 2020, when the transition period expires. Experts have repeatedly tried disabusing Johnnson of this notion, pointed out that a pretty straightforward trade deal with Canada took seven years to negotiate and another year to obtain conditional approval. More recently, the EU slapped down Johnson’s claims, saying by the end of 2020 there would either be no deal or a bare-bones agreement. We’ve pointed out repeatedly that anyone who needs a deal done in haste winds up making concessions to the party that isn’t time pressured. And Sir Ivan agrees:

Put crudely, the EU will feel that, in the time available, rather little serious can get done and will think that is no bad thing as it can fully exploit UK desperation to get something over the new line.

Why not take advantage of yet another Prime Minister who has unwisely boxed himself in?

Sir Ivan also contends that there is a real risk that talks would break down.

Sir Ivan also makes a point that we’ve stressed from time to time, but oddly has been neglected in most press coverage and what passes for analysis: that services deals take longer than trade deals do. So it’s well-nigh impossible for the UK to cinch a pact that would cover its critically important services sector, meaning the City of London. And more subtly, a lot of manufacturing has services bundled with the product, so not having a services agreement in place would also hurt some goods sectors.

Recall that the UK could seek a one-time one or two year extension by June 2020.

Sir Ivan’s argument is that even if Johnson could talk his way out of the political equivalent of pledging his first born to his “EU deal in 2020” promise, Johnson is very unlikely to realize he has a huge timetable problem until after he’s gone past the point of no return.

Sir Ivan also points out that Johnson isn’t concerned when he should be about a sketchy agreement with the EU. Johnson and his allies really believe their fantasy of needing to get away from meanie EU. The problem is that quite a few people did the trade math shortly after Brexit. It verges on implausible that there will be enough demand from the rest of the world to replace the lost/diminished EU trade if the UK goes down this radical path. And that’s before you get to considerable transition costs.

And of course the UK will also be desperate to get replacement deals for the ones it loses through the EU…and again, need for speed works very much against the UK.

This is a very colorful speech, particularly when Sir Ivan excoriates the Government, for instance, “diplomatic amateurism dressed up domestically as boldness and decisiveness”. He also came close to accusing Johnson of deliberately lying about what’s in store…which after the red NHS bus, should hardly come as a surprise. Johnson fibbing is virtually a daily event, such as his latest howler, that the his new Government would hire 50,000 more NHS nurses. But Sir Ivan’s point is the Brexit lies are of vastly greater consequence.

00 The Ghost of Christmas yet to come: Sir Ivan Roger's Brexit lecture full text - Policy Scotland
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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Sir Ivan seems to be getting more and more frustrated with each talk. As always, his explanations for the problems and idiocies of Brexit are highly lucid and readable. Oh, how the British Government could do with a few people like him actually giving advice to the government (its possible of course that there are, but it seems more likely that all the sensible, talented civil servants have long since found themselves other jobs).

    The reality is that Brexit will be a nightmare that will hamstring whatever (if any) party wins the election. When the Brexit vote first came out I wrongly predicted that the mercantilist instincts of France and Germany would lead to them taking a very strong line, with an overt policy of forcing UK business to relocate if they wished to stay in business. But if Bojo does win a majority I think they will do exactly this – there is less and less reason for them to play nice.

  2. larry

    PK, some of them have already done so. So, your hunch was right. And those who haven’t gone I have also been told are seriously considering doing so, if they are able to. I would leave a Johnson captained ship were I them. What astounds me is that, seemingly, people will still vote for him. At least at this point in time.

    Should you need chilling out, I recommend Hugh Laurie’s rendition of St James Infirmary from the album, Let Them Talk. I don’t know whether this is your thing, but I could listen to it all day, well, perhaps not that long.

    1. Tony Wright

      Great song – one of few that either make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, or bring a tear to the eye. I prefer the Eric Burdon version from the late 1960’s though.
      New Orleans: one of my favourite holiday destinations, but if I lived there I think my life would be shorter……( but probably happier)

  3. David

    It’s a long read, but it’s hard to quibble with most of the analysis. Essentially, this is a catastrophic self-inflicted political and economic wound, that could and should have been avoided by a bit of sensible planning at the start. I’d suggest there were three fundamental weaknesses.
    The first, as Rogers hammers home continually, is the timetable. The simple fact is that negotiations take time, and often the bit that you see, in meeting rooms and press conferences, is just the sharp end. Much of the real, time consuming and back-breaking work goes on elsewhere. in working papers, exploratory meetings, non-papers, bilaterals, meetings of states with particular common interests etc. None of this can be hurried. And without preparation, it’s all useless. At a minimum, there should have been a year of careful preparation after May fired her little starting pistol to position the UK to say exactly what it wanted after the implementation period, and start negotiations straight away. Instead of which we have … nothing. The most probable next government seems to have literally no idea what it might want, at any useful level of detail.
    The second is the connection between policy and implementation. You can have the most brilliant negotiators in the world, but if they have no objectives, or the objectives are changing all the time, there’s nothing they can do. That’s pretty much where we are. How long would it take the next government to define even a straightforward negotiating mandate from which officials could work? Months, I suspect. I can certainly believe there are still some officials giving Ministers the kind of advice that’s in this jeremiad, but I don’t think it has any effect these days. It’s not simply good people leaving (which most are very reluctant to do, by the way) and it’s not just that people get promoted because they know what Ministers want. I think there’s a whole new atmosphere, dating from Blair’s tenure, where Ministers surround themselves with careerist Special Advisers who they turn to in preference to the professionals, and who tell them what they want to hear. Such people are basically party hacks, and tend to share the short-term, focus-group driven approach of their masters. In the end, if the professionals tell you it’s all going to be a disaster, you can comfort yourself with the views of someone like Cummings who, you convince yourself , has a better grip on the issues than career bureaucrats have. (And of course at the best of times the UK’s EU policy-making has taken place in a largely domestic, reality-free context).
    The third is to do with giving the initiative away, which is something you just don’t do. I really doubt if anyone in the UK political and media elites has any real idea how desperately weak the UK’s negotiating position will be, and what that means. It takes real genius to put a heterogeneous groups of 27 states and the Commission into a superior negotiating position against a large member state. But they managed it. All of that, and Johnson was actually Foreign Secretary: you’d have thought he had at least learned to spell “negotiation.”

  4. CitizenGuy

    I apologize if this is a naive question, but why is this scenario any different from the Brexit panic that’s been playing out the last couple years? By that, I mean can the UK expect the EU to push back the time table at its request? There were 3 or 4 delays to the Brexit deadline, and I know that the UK can at most request a 2 year extension to this transition period. But what is to stop it from requesting more time if it’s needed? Aside from Boris’ uncompromising integrity (/s)?

    1. David

      It’s not a naive question at all, although you’ll have to be content with a very simplified version of the answer. Essentially, it’s a continuation of the same serial car crash we have been experiencing since 2016, caused by the same mixture of arrogance, ignorance, incompetence and magical thinking. The difference is that the first phase (negotiation of the withdrawal agreement) took place under a treaty which allowed extensions to the negotiations, as indeed happened. We are about to embark on Phase 2, which is the negotiations about the future relationship, and there the deadline is fixed by the WA itself, with one possible extension. Changing that would mean changing the treaty. As I say, that’s the simplified version, but to get an idea of the full horror of the situation, consider the following metaphor: your spouse comes home one night to announce that they have just sold the house for occupation by somebody in six months time and the deal has already been signed. But that’s OK because you’re going to move to a foreign country (yet to be decided), get good jobs and be better off. But that’s a ridiculously short timescale, you object, dazedly. Oh not really says your spouse. I’ve negotiated an optional one-month extension, though I don’t think we’ll need it.

      1. CitizenGuy

        Thank you very much, David! I think I understand it: a single extension is all that’s baked into the withdrawal agreement. Any additional extensions would require new legislation, unlike the previous clown fiesta. In that setting, the only deadline was the start of the transition period (2020).

  5. Fazal Majid

    Ivan Rogers blames the EU for having a short-termist, transactional and hard-nosed view for the relationship with the UK. He omits to mention that this is exactly how the UK has been operating in Europe since Thatcher, implemented largely (and successfully) by functionaries such as himself. Surely he cannot be so deluded as to think the EU bureaucrats haven’t been keeping notes?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, he seems to have felt obliged to criticise the EU for the sake of even handedness. But its very difficult to see what else the EU could do in the circumstances – in fact, I think they’ve been very generous to the UK, mostly to address the border in Ireland. The EU could easily have made things much, much worse for the UK government. Imagine, for example, if at an early stage they simply published a list of all UK companies, and companies based in the UK, which would have to leave the UK for a Member State by a certain date if they wished to continue trade without punitive tariffs.

  6. Summer

    So it still looks like, warnings ignored, the choices are no-deal and remain.

    “The problem is that quite a few people did the trade math shortly after Brexit. It verges on implausible that there will be enough demand from the rest of the world to replace the lost/diminished EU trade if the UK goes down this radical path. And that’s before you get to considerable transition costs.”

    Just thinking that radical times would call for radical measures. I imagine if the Brits could fake an attack by the Russians, the cold war dunces in the US would be ready to give them a new Marshall Plan.

  7. Summer

    Every time I read something about the Brexit negotiations it sounds like a course in how to make sure you don’t negotiate.

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