Beyond #GE17: Britain’s Civil Service and the Negotiations Ahead

Theresa May’s decision to overrule herself and call a snap election on June 8 took Westminster by surprise, but the move is easy to understand. Going into negotiations with the European Union, May and her cabinet see an opportunity to shore up their flank while the opposition (specifically Labor) remains in disarray. May said as much herself in her announcement: by dissolving Parliament and hopefully expanding the Tory majority now, May wants to avoid fighting an election when talks with Europe reach their diciest points.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The election should solidify May’s position inside the Commons, but does nothing to resolve a more vexing question: how will the machinery of the British government, the civil service responsible for handling nuts and bolts, hold up through the process of leaving Europe?

Neither the Prime Minister nor the members of her Cabinet have said much on the topic publicly, but many Brexit sceptics argue the civil service has neither the personnel nor the resources to deal with the gargantuan undertaking. After all, on top of Brexit, Britain’s bureaucrats are simultaneously being asked to lay out the parameters for trade deals with countries outside the EU at the same time. A larger Tory majority will make Theresa May’s life easier politically, but does little to help the civil service deal with the issues that must be resolved within the next two years. Even without the tight deadline, EU negotiations would be incredibly tough. The bureaucracy, at its smallest since World War II, has been whittled down by years of austerity and decades of Conservative rule, and complaints over its inability to handle the workload of governance pre-date the referendum.

With Brexit, its list of tasks has grown exponentially. Britain’s public servants now need to pick through four decades’ worth of European directives and laws to determine what needs to be imported into British law books and explore the parameters of a future trade relationship between Britain and Europe. Downing Street has made some moves to address those challenges (such as creating its Brexit ministry), but the bureaucracy remains understaffed. As one insider reportedly complained about the hiring challenge ahead: “This is complicated, incredibly technical work…it isn’t like finding 300 tax collectors, it’s like finding 300 nuclear physicists.” At the same time, Britain’s bureaucrats will also need to hash out relations with non-European trade partners. Given the expertise required to negotiate and execute new trade deals, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by simply bringing in more manpower. As Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former Ambassador to the EU, warned as he resigned his post: “contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen”. Those new agreements, which Theresa May promised again in her election announcement, will be a significant test for a state apparatus that has not had to negotiate a trade deal in four decades.

Fortunately for the British government and its civil servants, not all post-Brexit agreements are created equal. While some of the trade deals May hopes to secure will be difficult (especially India, which gave Theresa May the cold shoulder last year), other future partners are far more keen to get a deal done quickly. This is especially true of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which offers Britain’s prime minister the chance to generate critical momentum with a fairly straightforward arrangement. Unlike India, the Gulf monarchies do not see May’s stance on immigration as a hurdle to free commerce, and unlike other willing partners, like the United States, a trade agreement with the GCC would entail far less regulatory minutiae and fewer political hurdles. Theresa May has come to the same conclusion. Since assuming power, she has made two major visits to the Persian Gulf to strengthen existing commercial ties and press for new deals ahead of 2019. The most recent came earlier this month with May’s travels to Saudi Arabia, Britain’s most significant trading partner in the Middle East and the market for more than $8 billion in British exports in 2015. Riyadh was equally eager to welcome May, as it has been seeking to increase foreign investment and outside help to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and diversify its economy. Apparently cognizant of the challenges facing the British bureaucracy, the Saudis and their GCC partners may even take the initiative of drafting their own “signature-ready” trade deal. The move would be a clever one: with the British ministries unlikely to have time to work on their own proposals before concluding talks with Brussels, the GCC would be able to seize the initiative and set the initial terms of a future arrangement by coming to the table with their own draft. Of course, not all post-Brexit trading partners share the same level of enthusiasm, and the UK will have its hands full trying to negotiate far-reaching agreements with India, Australia, or the United States with what amounts to a skeleton crew of a bureaucracy. 

The best way to prevent Britain from finding itself at a permanent disadvantage would be to beef up the civil service and hire the 10,000 (or even 30,000) additional staffers the UK government reportedly needs to cope with Brexit. Unfortunately, the Conservative government hasn’t gotten the message. Instead, it continues to hammer key agencies with budget cuts while locking potentially useful foreign advisors out of the proceedings altogether. If Theresa May is serious about building a health future for Britain and bringing coherent Brexit negotiations with the European Union to a successful conclusion, she needs to re-staff Whitehall’s departments and make sure her Cabinet can draw on every ounce of expertise available. Otherwise, even a landslide Conservative victory in June will not make a difference.

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