Described as the “ultimate expert on Brexit,” the former British ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, was questioned by the Commons Brexit Committee yesterday (22 February) on key points relating to the UK’s exit from the EU. 

Rogers, who resigned as Britain’s ambassador to the EU in January, has been frustrated by politicians who disliked his Brexit warnings. Earlier in December, he was criticised by Tories for cautioning that Brexit negotiations, and the UK’s final break with the EU, might take as long as a decade. In his resignation email, he wrote: “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council.” 

Key points: Rogers’ evidence to the Commons Brexit committee

In the hearing, Rogers said that it’s unclear how the Brexit negotiations will develop. Britain wants the final trade deal and the withdrawal to be negotiated at length, whereas the EU is interested in the withdrawal terms to be negotiated first. 

He noted that the 27 member states have many differences between them and that is why they are not very interested in opening the negotiations before triggering article 50, afraid that the British will go through them in detail.

But he warned that Britain was “up against a class act in the European commission when it comes to negotiating”.

Rogers said that Brexit talks could get “gory, bitter and twisted.” He stressed that EU countries wouldn’t accept a special trade deal for certain parts of the economy. Despite the fact that Theresa May has been promising special deals for certain sectors such as the car industry, Rogers said that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, would attempt to retain the integrity of the single market and the customs union. Rogers said: “Well, with Merkel, if she’s still there, the unity, the unity of the 27, will win out and I think she and others will agree that there will be no sectoral deals in either the single market or the customs union, and I expect that to appear in either the guidelines or the negotiating mandate.”

Leaving the EU without a trade deal will be “insane”, Rogers said. This will be detrimental for both the EU and the UK. He told the Brexit committee: “If you had an abrupt cliff edge with real world consequences, you’ve seen what Mark Carney has said about the financial stability risks to the eurozone of an abrupt cliff edge. There are other consequences in other sectors which would make it an insane thing to do. All I was pointing out was that this is a very legalistic body that we are dealing with and they will say you have transformed yourselves overnight from having been a member of this body to a third country outside the body and in the absence of a new legal agreement everything falls away. We all know that that’s nuts in the real world, because why would you want to stop UK planes flying into European airports on day [one]. We know that this is insanity, but …. that does not stop it necessarily happening.”

A free trade deal with the EU isn’t the same thing as access to the single market: He stressed that “It is not true you get everything you want from an FTA [free trade agreement] and it’s just the same as the single market. This is the crucial difference between access to the market and membership of it.” Two of the examples he gave related to the banking sector and European products: “Access means that your banks can only lend via a local subsidiary. Membership means there is no need for your banks to be separately supervised, regulated, managed and capitalised [by a] subsidiary in other countries, that one can operate through branches, and that home state rules and supervision suffice.

“Access means that Scotch can be sold into France or Germany or whatever. Membership of the single market means that all taxes and duties for comparable products for Scotch must be the same as for Scotch. And if they are not, we can take them to the ECJ and say why are they not. We won’t be able to take them to the ECJ ... when we’ve only got access.”

Language gap: UK says EU migration is migration, but the EU calls it free movement. Rogers said that there were issues with nomenclature when it comes to migration: “If I think back to our renegotiation last February, nomenclature was a huge issue for people. They genuinely don’t understand the UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They don’t understand why a government would have a migration target covering both migration within the European Union - which for other people is not migration, they don’t call it migration, they don’t call it immigration, they call it free movement. The amount of time I spent with my opposite numbers over many years trying to explain why our nomenclature and why our whole debate was different, and why we called both these things essentially the same - for all my other colleagues, they say, ‘But one’s migration, which is external from the European Union, the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing.’”

Money issues might get “gory”: Rogers said that, while it’s not a majority view, it’s nonetheless an important issue with implications that will affect the EU’s budget, if the UK exits. He reported that from his talks with European leaders there is always the budgetary issue which affects all the 27 countries, whether they are recipients or net contributors. He believes that: “we can expect a number of them to think - well, if the British want a future trade deal, and they want some form of transitional arrangement before a future trade deal, all big ifs, then this will come together at some gory European council in the autumn of 2018 and it will come together with the money equation. There will be some who will want to play hardball and say, ‘well, absent British money over a transitional period, why the hell should we give them any trade deal?’”

UK might get “screwed” if it didn’t get the right trade deal with the EU: “We have an enormously valuable and competitive services sector with a huge surplus where we risk being screwed if we don’t get this right.” A bespoke financial services deal is important: “This is a very serious problem unless we get a bespoke financial services deal with equivalence which really works for us. This would be something the EU 27 has not done for any other member state and what it hasn’t been prepared to do for any other partner.”

No deal within 2 years: Rogers warned that “the key players, the key officials, the key technocrats, the key theologians” in the EU think that a new agreement can’t possibly be agreed before 2022 even if everything goes “unprecedentedly fast”.

Non-tariff barriers will be an issue: While a tariff-free deal would be easy, a non-tariff free deal will be more complicated because the UK is leaving the EU, abandoning regulations instead of trying to converge them with those within the EU.

The Brexit connoisseur, stressed again that the article 50 was something that favoured the 27 countries within the EU and not the single country which decided to leave. Most importantly, there was a massive difference between the privileges of EU membership and a free trade agreement. Nothing can be as good as actually being in the single market. Let’s also remind ourselves that, despite Boris Johnson’s attitude that Britain can “have its cake and eat it”, the European Council’s president Donald Tusk’s reply might be more instructive. As we move closer to triggering article 50, it might be increasingly felt that EU leaders wouldn’t be willing to offer “cakes on the table, for anyone”, but rather “only salt and vinegar.”