The UK risks losing its institutional memory of the EU

Matt Bevington | March 2021

The UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU was one of the biggest and most well organised of any member state. The UK was for the large part an effective operator, building effective coalitions and steering the positions of EU governments towards its interests. Yet, as my new report for the UK in a Changing Europe on the Permanent Representation highlights, the UK risks losing much of this vital institutional memory.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK government still sends more officials to Brussels than it does to Washington. The UK’s missions to the UN in New York and to the World Trade Organisation (and UN) in Geneva pale in comparison. But the newly dubbed UK Mission to the EU is set to shrink over time (to as yet undefined levels) and its senior leadership has already been downgraded.

Within the wider Whitehall system, the UK risks repeating the mistakes of the first phase of the Brexit process, when the substantial expertise built up in the Department for Exiting the EU was mostly cast to the four winds.

The is especially true for more senior officials. Those who have direct experience negotiating within the EU ought to be gold dust. No amount of training can make up for that in-person knowledge of how the EU Council system operates. Yet there is little sign the government agrees.

Take the UK’s last deputy ambassador to the EU, Katrina Williams. She has spent a career working at the heart of EU policymaking in the Cabinet Office, the Permanent Representation and in domestic Whitehall departments. She was also centrally involved in thinking about how the newly dubbed UK Mission to the EU should operate in future. Yet her role has been scrapped and she was not retained in Whitehall (she now works for the Scottish government, which is good news for them).

Heading into the Brexit process, there was a dearth of senior EU expertise. In the early 2010s, and even before, such figures were thin on the ground. Ivan Rogers, for instance, had to be dragged back from the private sector to fill one of the two main EU posts in 2011. Senior officials in many domestic departments had very little exposure to EU work and certainly didn’t understand the institutions well. The expertise that was there was siloed in units and seen as rather eccentric.

At more junior levels, there may be difficulty attracting officials to the mission in future. The most interesting and rewarding part of the job — negotiating what would ultimately become law across the EU with 27 other governments — no longer exists for British officials. Trying to peep through the keyhole is a much less attractive prospect than negotiating on behalf of your government.

For officials in some domestic departments, a posting to Brussels may remain an exciting prospect, especially for those that are mostly domestic-facing. But the job is now very different, more akin to traditional diplomacy than hard-nosed policy work (though there remains an element of that).

Moreover, if you are an ambitious civil servant, politicians have given a very clear signal that the EU is not a priority. If you want to work at the vanguard of government policy, you’re far better off working on, say, Net Zero.

The Brussels mission is not known for its HR support either. One former UK Permanent Representative told me that when he took up the role it was months before he could get into to the internal intranet system. To gain any access, he had to borrow the login of the wife of a foreign office official.

It is not just within the system that there are problems. There remain hundreds of Brits working within the EU institutions. In theory, they should be a primary source of EU knowledge and expertise for the UK government to try and access. Yet, the government has thoroughly alienated many through its approach to Brexit and made little effort to rebuild bridges.

The UK has constructed a new set of arrangements to manage the relationship with the EU. It is nothing like as deep or comprehensive as EU membership, but it is still the UK’s most substantial overseas relationship. Whether on fisheries, financial services, data, subsidies or, of course, Northern Ireland, the UK will remain embroiled in a deep and complex relationship. Ask the Norwegian, Swiss or Canadian governments, existing on the edge of an economic giant takes up a lot of time and attention.

As the Director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs Ulf Sverdrup commented recently, as a close neighbour you have to know the EU in many ways better even than member states. There are far fewer opportunities to influence as a third country so the EU must be monitored and understood intimately. Member states can afford to be lazier.

So the UK was not in a good place in terms of its EU expertise going into Brexit. It built up substantial expertise during the Brexit process, but largely failed to retain it. There may be less appetite to work on EU policy in future. And the government has alienated many Brits that still work within the EU institutions. This is not a recipe for future success.

There needs to be a concerted effort to develop the next generation of EU experts in Whitehall. Now is the best time to do so while some expertise remains in the system. But it is also the least likely time to gain political support. By the time politicians realise this expertise is still badly needed, it may no longer be there, and rebuilding it will be infinitely more difficult than cultivating what already exists.

As former UK Permanent Representative Stephen Wall commented recently, “All roads lead back to Europe,” not in terms of rejoining but in where the UK’s core interests lie. Let’s hope by the time the government realises, there are still enough people who still know the terrain.