British ambassador to Luxembourg John Marshall will be spending Friday evening having dinner with friends, and “probably having a real reasonably early night” as he plans to go out running on Saturday morning.
In an extensive interview, the British ambassador to Luxembourg talks about the future relationship negotiations between the UK and the EU.
British ambassador to Luxembourg John Marshall arrived to take up his post in April 2016, just three months before the referendum on exiting the European Union. Back then, of course, the British government under David Cameron took the position that the UK’s best interests were served by remaining in the EU. Now, following the narrow vote in favour of leaving, the implementation of Article 50, negotiations to agree on a withdrawal bill, followed by two extensions of the actual leaving date, the UK will finally cease being a member of the EU at midnight on Friday.
This interview took place on Wednesday 29 January.
Duncan Roberts: What is the atmosphere like among embassy staff now that we are just two days away from the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union?
John Marshall: Good. I mean, obviously, some of us have been around ever since the referendum and other colleagues have arrived since, but a major part of all our work has been in delivering the government's objective of delivering on the result of the referendum. So, you know, three years, effectively is a slightly longer timetable than originally thought but there is a sort of sense of satisfaction that that part of the job is nearly at an end, and that we can look forward to the next phase. We've invested a lot of time and energy into getting the withdrawal agreement over the line--the terms of our divorce, the terms of our exit. Personally, I'm very much looking forward to next phase, which is the most constructive agenda, negotiating the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
In the light of recent statements by Michel Barnier and trade commissioner Phil Hogan about the timetable for that phase, which has got to end on the 31st of December--they're saying it's almost impossible to get everything dusted by then--how confident is the government of achieving what the Political Declaration calls an “ambitious” trading relationship?
Well, the prime minister is very clear, he could not be clearer, that there will be no extension to the implementation period. So that means we have until the end of the year to reach agreement. And we think that's plenty of time. The political will is there. Clearly the negotiations are going to be challenging at times, they always are. But some of the comparisons to other negotiations are false because we're very much in a sort of sui generis position. And you know, we are absolutely confident we can get a good agreement, for goods, services and other key areas of the relationship in the time available.
The chancellor, Sajid Javid, said in an FT interview last week that business should be prepared for there being no close relationship with the EU. And then in Davos he appeared to flip when he told the CBI that there won’t be divergence just for the sake of it. So, what is the position and how can businesses prepare for 2021 if everything is still up in the air?
Obviously, we don't know yet what the end position is going to be, or exactly what the agreements are going to say. There are unknowns. But, for example, we have a very clear position that we are leaving the single market and we will not be part of the customs union. So, for example, businesses will know that in future procedures at the border will be will be different.
On the question of alignment, again the government has been very clear that there will be no dynamic alignment. Clearly there will be alignment in the sense that EU law as it currently stands has been transposed into UK law. But divergence is inevitable because there will be some areas in future where UK public opinion or parliament will want to make changes to those laws, and obviously the EU is going to be developing its own body of legislations in future.
“The government has been very clear that there will be no dynamic alignment.”
We will have complete autonomy about decision making and it will be for our parliament to decide our laws. The chancellor and others including [secretary of state for exiting the European Union] Steve Barclay have made the point that there will be no divergence for the sake of it. But when there is good reason to change a law, when that's what parliament wants to do in whatever sector in the future it might be, then they will be able to do that.
The EU seems to have already drawn some red lines even before negotiations begin, with fishing rights seeming to be a priority. What are the UK’s red lines?
There were certain things which were set out in the Conservative Party manifesto on the basis of which the government was elected. But next week the prime minister will set out in bit more detail our, our approach [when Boris Johnson is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech]. At the beginning of negotiations there are always sort of red lines, but negotiations take their course and there's a lot to be discussed between now and the middle of the year.
What do you make of Pierre Gramegna’s renewed appeal this week for financial services to be included in the future relationship negotiations?
We're clear that we want an agreement that covers goods and services, and financial services are important part of that. Exactly how that can be achieved will be a matter for the negotiations. The starting point obviously is the text within the political declaration which, on the one hand, makes reference to the existing equivalence frameworks and says that assessments and decisions on equivalence should be taken by June. But the text also highlights the importance of having in place a structure for closer regulatory and supervisory cooperation.
And it also emphasises the importance of transparency in the process of adopting, suspending or withdrawing equivalence. And it also emphasises the importance, which is obviously very important to private business sector, of stability. And it also talks about equivalence systems being kept under review. So, there are lots of issues there for further discussion.
“The text highlights the importance of having in place a structure for closer regulatory and supervisory cooperation”
At the same time as negotiating with the EU, the UK is also seeking other trade deals, most notably with the United States. But there seem to be a couple of potential stumbling blocks before talks begin--like the UK’s insistence on imposing a digital tax on the big tech firms and Monday’s announcement that Huawei can participate in the UK’s 5G network. Is the government confident it can resist US pressure on these points and still get a good deal?
We have been clear from the outset that it is important to have an independent trade policy. That's one of the opportunities that exists as a result of not being within the single market and customs union, and we are pursuing those opportunities with energy and vigour. A number of countries have indicated that they would also like to agree free trade agreements with us on a short timetable, and the US is one of those. Which is great news because a free trade agreement with the US would be beneficial to both countries.
“We are pursuing those [free trade agreement] opportunities with energy and vigour”
Again, those are going to be challenging negotiations, because negotiations on any free trade agreement are challenging. And, you know, each side is sort of pushing forward its national interest. But the two developments that have happened this week in the context of the US-UK relationship are just some amongst lots of other issues which will provide the context for the negotiations. And again, I wouldn't want to sort of speculate about have a might or might not impact upon the course of the negotiations.
But on the 5G decision that the prime minister announced, obviously we're going to listen to the views of our friends and allies, but ultimately that is a decision for the UK as a sovereign, independent state to take on the basis of what we think is in our best national interest.
If there are certain areas in which there is no agreement by the end of the year, is there any way that would impact the rights of British citizens in Luxembourg?
There has been the occasional talk that there could be another sort of no deal scenario at the end of the year. Basically, people speculate about the possibility that we wouldn't have reached an agreement on trade by the end of the year.
What is absolutely clear is that the withdrawal agreement is coming into force. And it is the withdrawal agreement that protects the rights of British citizens, and that is an international treaty. It will be entirely unaffected by our ability to negotiate or not a free trade agreement, or an agreement on internal security, or all the other things that we're going to be devoting this year to. So, there is absolute certainty about the ability of British citizens currently living here to continue living here, to continue working here, to continue studying here, to continue accessing benefits and services in the way that do now.
“The withdrawal agreement…protects the rights of British citizens, and that is an international treaty.”
Reports in the media over the new year suggested that the prime minister wanted to ban use of the word “Brexit” in Downing Street after 31 January. Have diplomatic missions been issued with any such edict?
No, nothing of that kind has been sent. But it's clear that Brexit happens on Friday. Brexit is us leaving the European Union. You know, after Friday, we will not be members of the EU will not be attending meetings of the EU. And the focus will be on negotiating the future relationship.
How will you be spending Friday night?
I'm having dinner at a friend’s, and probably having a real reasonably early night as I've got lots of plans to go out running on Saturday morning.
And finally, four years ago in this office you said you would be in post for the duration of Brexit. I guess that includes the transition period. Is there any news on when you will leave the post?
When I arrived, it was a four-year job. But at some point, a decision was taken that jobs in developed countries, including Europe, the States and Canada and many others, could be four years plus one. So, I have decided to exercise that option, so will be doing five years. That takes me next April, which will be after the end of the implementation period.