Brexit? Brentry back into the world will be even harder


Hillary Brit is The Daily Chrenk’s European correspondent.

Brexit.  What a word.  Half noun, half verb.  The word inflicts grammatical torture on my ears every time I hear it.  But the most fascinating effect of this word is how its mere mention can turn an otherwise sane and rational person into a foaming, frothing crazy person.

I find this effect fascinating.  Whether it is a Brexiteer screaming “Treason!” at the top of their lungs and warning of civil war if Brexit isn’t delivered in full, or a Remoaner whining that Granny will die due to a shortage of life-saving drugs; they are both as bad as each other.

As one of the newest citizens of the UK, I think Brexit is neither the end of the world, nor is it the starting gun for Pax Brittania 2.0.  I believe the story is somewhere in between these two extremes, and I would appreciate a little more balance from the partisans battling it out Parliament and on the airwaves.

First, to declare my interests.  I would have voted Brexit.  I could make many arguments, but they largely all come back to a single principle.  Decisions are best made by the most local competent entity.  Brussels represents the antithesis of this principle.

With that said, I am not a one-eyed supporter.  There are significant issues with Brexit, and we should face into them fully.

What issues am I talking about?  Lorry car parks?  Medicine shortages?  Food price escalation?  An immediate recession and loss of 8% of GDP?

No, nothing like that.  In each of those cases, saner voices have debunked these hysterical claims – for those willing to listen.  Without dealing with each in turn, these same types of claims were made about the Referendum.  Economic collapse, increased unemployment, an immediate drop in GDP.  None of them came true.  There is no reason to believe these same people are any going to be any more right this time than they were last.

But there are fundamentally bigger problems than the “Project Fear” claims which at worst, will be short term hiccups.

My concerns are deeper and best summarized by Peter Hitchens, writer for The Mail on Sunday, former socialist and now arch conservative – although no friend of the Tory Party.

Hitchens believes some of the muscles of the UK body politic have atrophied during its time in the EU.  That certain ordinary functions of independent nation states have been unused and rendered useless.  Regaining “muscle tone” will be a slow and painful process.  I agree.

I want to use one example to demonstrate Mr Hitchen’s point:  the extreme shortage of civil servants with the capability – let alone the experience – to negotiate trade deals.

I’ve played in that space in a peripheral way.  As an Australian State Government bureaucrat, I was regularly asked to review trade agreements with our Asian trading partners to ensure that State interests were adequately protected.

Trade agreements are complex.  They are behemoths of legal jargon, written in the context of international law, treaties and agreements.  They are hyperlinked and interconnected with various schedules, addendums, side bar agreements, WTO rules and legacy deals.

A sagacious person once claimed the beginning of wisdom is to grapple with exactly how much you really don’t know.  After over 15 years in public service, I don’t really know anywhere near as much about trade agreements as I feel I should.  And this is coming from a public/civil servant with over a decade of experience, with relevant training, working in a stable, well-functioning and established bureaucracy.

As at November 2018, the UK had 90… yes 90… civil servants who had taken the necessary “expert training” to negotiate trade agreements.  They have no experience.  They are operating in presumably new organisations, without the benefit of stable policies, rules, operating procedures, customs and norms.

In the Foreign Office’s own words:  “The UK has not had to operate on the frontline of trade policy and negotiations since it joined the EEC. The scale of the UK’s challenge in building trade capability from a very modest base is unparalleled amongst developed economies.”

“Building trade capability from a very modest base” is public service code for “We haven’t a f**king clue what we’re doing.”

I do wonder what this “training” constituted?  If my experience is anything to go by, they probably attended a half day workshop of PowerPoint slides prepared by a management consultant.  Maybe they played “two truths, one lie” as an ice breaker.  Maybe they got to take a workbook home.

They will face across the negotiation table with hardened, experienced trade negotiators with dozens of agreements under their belt and a wealth of experience.  Talk about sheep to the slaughter.

So when the likes of Nigel Farage, and Jacob Rees-Mogg claim the massive benefits that will almost immediately flow to the UK from free trade discussions and agreements with countries like the US, Mexico and even Australia… they are kidding themselves.

By way of example, the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement took a feasibility study, 21 negotiation rounds and 10 years to negotiate.  That is not to mention the thousands upon thousands of hours of consultation with other government agencies, heads of industry, labour unions, think tanks and so on.

More from the relevant Parliamentary report “The FCO said it ‘aims to have trained at least 240 people to expert level by March 2019’, and that ‘90 have already been trained to this level.”

“We asked the head of the Diplomatic Academy, Jon Benjamin, what an ‘expert’ meant in this context. He said it ‘means people who are ready to negotiate the immense detail that goes into free trade agreements’, and noted that they ‘will be dealing with counterpart officials in other countries who may have been doing this for many years, perhaps exclusively so.’”

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an entire group dedicated to trade agreements run by a Deputy Secretary.  Four First Assistant Secretaries (FAS in Australian Public Service jargon) report to the Deputy Secretary responsible for Trade Agreements.  One FAS is solely responsible for trade negotiations.  They have 5 assistant secretaries, two special negotiators, probably around 30 Directors and 180 departmental officers reporting to them.  And that’s just to run the 7 ongoing trade negotiations Australia is currently involved in.

Then there is a separate office that solely deals with existing agreements.  Presumably this office has a similar number of trained staff.  Then there are the hundreds of public servants like myself spread throughout the state governments with an intermediate knowledge of trade and industry development.

That’s around 500 highly experienced, trained Australian Public Sector professionals, working for probably the most prestigious Australian government agency, plus an auxiliary of several hundred more spread through the country just to administer and negotiate trade deals for a country with an economy half the size of the UK.

The UK have 90 trade negotiators who have attended “training”.  When Peter Hitchens talks about “atrophy”, I am guessing this is exactly the sort of thing he is referring to.

The Brexiteers claim that they can piggy back off existing deals already negotiated by the EU.  But it just doesn’t work that way.  Trade deals are bespoke, highly customized agreements drafted to reflect the unique circumstances of the respective partners.  The UK outside of the EU and the Customs Union – presumably with different tariff schedules and with ambition to diverge in regulatory requirements – is not the EU.  Existing EU trade partners will at the very least want to review arrangements in light of the new UK context.  That could take years.

30 separate EU agreements requiring review before existing concessions might be restored to the UK following Brexit.  30 agreements to be renegotiated, not to mention the handful of brand-new Free Trade Agreements the Brexiteers are claiming they want negotiated.

30 odd agreements to negotiate with 90 “trained” but inexperienced staff.

Australia has 7 negotiations ongoing, and 500 experienced staff supported by an army of auxiliaries.

The China-Australia FTA took 10 years.

The Brexiteers are kidding themselves, and they do themselves a disservice by pretending that this isn’t a significant problem requiring great effort, attention and urgency.

These are the sorts of real issues that ought to be being discussed calmly and with gravitas in Parliament, in public and most importantly in the civil service.  Not screaming about whether Granny will get her meds, or how traitorous the Speaker of the House of Commons is.

So I have a plea to both Remainers and Brexiteers.  Let’s stop with the hysterical response to Brexit please?  When did you all become a breathless set of shrieking harpies?  Can we all please just make a nice pot of tea, take a few deep breathes and remember we are all supposed to be British?