LONDON — Theresa May can hope for no more than an “aspirational” and “purely political” agreement on free trade before Britain leaves the European Union, according to the U.K.’s former ambassador to the EU.
In a lecture on U.K.-EU relations, Ivan Rogers said that — like David Cameron before her — May would run up against the EU’s attachment to “legal form and processes” and find that “at very best” they would agree to “a political agreement on ambit” about future trade, not a legal agreement.
May has insisted the U.K. wants to leave the EU in March 2019, entering a transition period but “knowing what the new partnership and trade agreement will be,” while Brexit Secretary David Davis has said he does not envision the U.K. continuing to negotiate a trade agreement during the transition.
Rogers, who resigned from his post as the U.K.’s permanent representative in Brussels in January complaining of “muddled thinking” within government about Brexit, said it was “obvious” the EU would offer “far less on market access” than the U.K. currently enjoys, and that its negotiators would be unlikely to take seriously any British threat to walk away from the talks.
“The threat to walk out to go to WTO-only terms with the EU must totally contradict the U.K.’s own sober assessment of its best interests post Brexit and it can safely be assumed that the U.K. government sees huge economic value in not going there,” he said, according to the full text of the lecture, delivered at Oxford University’s Weston Library on Friday.
Comparing May’s travails in Brussels to those of Cameron, to whom Rogers also acted as EU sherpa between 2011 and 2013, he said that London was “rediscovering that legal form and process are critical in anything involving the EU, as indeed they are in all trade issues.”
“Political agreements, with highfalutin aspirational guff are one thing. Legally binding agreements, treaty changes and trade deal texts are another. All we shall see, at very best, on U.K.-EU trade in 2018 is a political agreement on ambit, not legal texts,” he said.
In an 11,800-word lecture on Cameron’s relationship with the EU — part of a series hosted by Hertford College, Oxford, and his most comprehensive account yet of the U.K.’s historic journey to Brexit — Rogers charts the former prime minister’s increasing frustration that U.K. interests were frequently “ridden roughshod over” by eurozone member states led by France and Germany.
Rogers argues that Cameron had been right to try to resolve tensions between “eurozone and broader EU interests” and had focused his efforts on “defending and enhancing British exceptionalism, and in carving out a permanent niche, within the market project, but outside the monetary, banking, fiscal and political union.”
Most EU leaders, however, hoped that the U.K.’s renegotiation and referendum “would simply never arise” either because Cameron would be ousted in the 2015 general election or would drop his referendum pledge, Rogers claims.
He said that the Conservative party’s understanding of EU politics suffered after Cameron’s decision to withdraw from the powerful European People’s Party bloc in the European Parliament, and recalls a 2012 meeting in Berlin between the prime minister and Angela Merkel in which the German chancellor told Cameron “but your vision of the EU is so cold, David.”
“I think he thought this was the pot calling the kettle black,” Rogers recalls. “From a leader who calculated, to the nth degree, the domestic political viability and consequences of every step she took at EU level — whether on the euro, on Greece, on energy policy or on the migration crisis. But she also meant the importance of European political party family ties, which to her, as to others, are genuine bonds of solidarity which impact how far you are prepared to go for the other partner.”