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The Secret Civil Servant: In Brexit negotiations, there is such a thing as a stupid question

In the first of a new series, our anonymous insider reports from the frontline of the EU negotiations – if someone has remembered to book the Eurostar. 

There’s a well worn aphorism that does the rounds in Whitehall, usually offered by a wise old hand to a callow new starter. “There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Its origins are undoubtedly noble, an attempt to foster an environment that is open and congenial, one that encourages challenge and discussion.

The problem is, there are quite a few stupid questions out there, if you put your mind to it.

Sitting in one of the final official level meetings to prepare for the first round of EU exit negotiations, it was hard not to conclude that certain individuals were aiming to single-handedly disprove the theory with one well-placed hammer blow of nonsense.

“I’ve heard that the European Commission won’t allow us in the working groups if we don’t have our own personalised business cards. Is that true?” asks someone with undisguised panic. Silence follows as the assembled cast get to grips with that. Some are dismissive, but from a few unhidden looks of concern, some are planning a trip to the stationery cupboard for the card, scissors and felt tips to knock up a few bespoke, handwritten affairs. 

This still falls somewhere short of the coveted civil service “most stupid question award”. That accolade goes to the director of a high-profile infrastucture programme who once asked, "does anybody actually know where Stoke is?" fanning his hands out. His tone suggested the location of Stoke-on-Trent should be considered in a similar category to shamanism, lacrosse or nuclear physics – something that we've heard of, but we're a bit sketchy on the details, and if pressed at a dinner party we might just get found out.

On that occasion everybody sheepishly looked down at their papers. Nope. We don’t know where Stoke is. We did classics and as far as we can recall the Third Punic War never got as far as the Potteries.

Back in the negotiation room, everybody avoids each other’s eyes and intensely studies the walls. Which on this occasion isn’t totally without use. The meeting room in question had recently been used for a lunchtime language lesson, so the various whiteboards are still sprinkled with handy beginner level French and German phrases.

As we move on to negotiating tactics, these add a useful counterpoint to the strategic guidelines being outlined by the chair.

"It is absolutely vital to establish strong, personal working relationships with your European counterparts from the outset." 

Je m'appelle Tommy, comment t'appelles tu?

We pause as another heavyweight query kicks the conversational door in. “Can we take smart watches into the negotiating rooms?” “Absolutely not. Leaks could be conducted from a smart watch.”

What leaks are going to be despatched from a smart watch that aren't already being sent directly to the newsroom of Le Monde is beyond me. No doubt the owner of the smart watch didn't want to lose the mileage he was due to rack up bobbing, weaving and squirming under the examination of the European Commission.

“The importance of getting on the front foot,” returning to topic, the chair plays a lovely imaginary forward defensive, “must not be underestimated.” Tu me cherches?

“And finally, to build credibility, it is crucial that we demonstrate rigorous attention to detail on points of detail.” Meine leiblings tanzen ist disko tanzen!

That’s all under control then.

A voice coughs gently, and a throat clears.  

“I've got a question, it's probably a stupid one.”

Here we go, thinks the room. You can feel it. Here we go. This will be about staplers, or filling in the annual leave chart, or cakes in the usual place.

“Has anyone booked the Eurostar?”

Everybody sheepishly looks down at their papers. Zut-a-fuckin-lors.


After the initial contacts with The Enemy, those civil servants party to the first two rounds of negotiations returned to London with tales of bravery, 1,000-yard stares, the odd box of truffles, an STI or two, suspicions of espionage George Smiley would find a bit excessive, and A Number Of Lessons To Be Heeded.

As any experienced traveller will tell you, when in hostile territory, it’s of paramount importance to keep your wits about you. This is a message being hammered home by those who have slipped back from behind the waffle-curtain.

There is a palpable fear in certain quarters that civil servants in possession of sensitive documents will be targeted while walking through Brussels, which despite being one of the safest cities in the world is now being described as though it were the inspiration for John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.

Whether these are specially trained European Commission employees or just Belgian street brigands who are keen on fencing an annotated copy of some EU directive 2008/115 on the black market, I can’t be sure. It’s hard not to imagine Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Junker and Guy Verhofstadt, clad in black, armed with cudgels waiting to pounce on an isolated British bureaucrat who has had one trappist beer too many.

If it comes to that we should probably send David Davis, Sir Tim Barrow and Olly Robbins to settle this once and for all with a straightener on the La Grand Place. Hang on. That might actually be the long-term strategy.

The paranoia doesn’t end there. There is concern that the French are tapping UK phones. Only the French are being suspected. All the other 26 nations are clearly getting away with it. History dies hard. From some of the telephone conversations I've overheard in Westminster, if the French are tapping phones, I can only conclude that we owe the French an unreserved apology for the unreconstituted bollocks they have to listen to. 

I can only surmise that they are becoming bigger fans of Brexit as each day goes by, and if Trisha keeps on about her lumbago, by 2019 the French will give us any deal we want. Name your price. Just make it stop, Monsieur.

In all likelihood, they're probably only checking up to see how our French lessons are going. Our new IT technician Pierre says it's nothing to worry about.

Yet the most significant bit of feedback to emerge from the slightly combative early meetings is also perhaps the most elemental one. Water. Or to be precise, the lack of it. As reported in the press, Johnny Foreigner had clearly attempted some unsporting tactics to get the upper hand by denying Tommy Atkins not as much as a cup of Volvic. The swine. This was clearly not a perfectly understandable oversight, but a piece of outright treachery.

So let this be a lesson to us all. When travelling in Europe, always remember to take water.

Bring on round three.

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because David Davis probably won’t find any of this funny.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.