Duncan Roberts: What happens on 19 October if the prime minister does not present parliament with a new Brexit deal? Is there a specific date by which he will have to request an extension to Article 50 in order to comply with the law?
John Marshall: The main point to emphasise, and there have been suggestions to the contrary, is that we are going all out for a deal. We think there is enough time to secure the amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement and to the political declaration that we want.
Discussions have resumed with Task Force 50 around ideas that we have put forward on what might replace the backstop. David Frost [the UK’s chief negotiator] is going to Brussels twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Our goal is to try and turn these discussions into negotiations with the Commission, which has a clear mandate from the member states, to come up with ultimately a legal text that will replace the text currently in the Withdrawal Agreement on the backstop in time for the European Council, meeting in 17 and 18 October, to approve it. The vast majority of the Withdrawal Agreement will remain the same. Obviously, that would then require ratification from the two parliaments.
Your question took the rather more pessimistic starting point on no agreement. There are lots of reasons, and it’s in both sides' interest that we should find an agreement. If we don’t, the prime minister has made it clear he wishes to leave without a deal, and we are therefore preparing in parallel for that eventuality. I can’t predict how these things are going to play out. There are several scenarios whereby we could leave without a deal. But the prime minister and the government have been clear that they will not do anything unlawful. It’s no surprise that it’s legislation that the government doesn’t like. It undermines our negotiating strategy, and I would expect the government to test the legislation to the full. But, absolutely, the government is going to operate within the law.
DR: Has the UK government had concrete indications from any EU members that they will veto the request for an extension?
JM: When I mention that there are a number of scenarios that could lead to us leaving without a deal, that obviously is one scenario. An extension has to be agreed unanimously, though it’s not something that we want. I know there has been speculation in the media that some countries might to want to grant an extension, but I’m not going to speculate in what any of the EU 27 might be having in 5 or 6 weeks. Our wish is not to extend, but to leave on 31 October with an agreement.
JM: We hear that line from the Commission, and from other member states. We have made, and are making, proposals and they are being discussed at the moment in the talks David Frost has been having. What we haven’t done, and there are good reasons for that, is set out on a piece of paper ideas for the legal text that might replace the backstop. Partly because we’ve learned from experience that when we do that they get shot down straight away. And partly because we want that to come later in the process, when we’ve had the opportunity to talk around these issues with Task Force 50.
Last week there were quite a lot of discussions on how things might work in the context with sanitary and phytosanitary controls for agri-food. And on changes we want to make to the political declaration. There have also been broader talks on customs and regulation issues.
The backstop is a mean to an end goal that we both share, which is to come up with a solution that doesn’t require a physical border, doesn’t undermine the Belfast agreement [the Good Friday Agreement] and respects the EU’s desire to maintain the integrity of the single marker.
At one point it was thought the backstop could deliver that. It’s clear that it can’t. Not only has the Withdrawal Agreement, largely because of what the backstop entails, been defeated three times in the UK parliament, but also the current British government finds it unacceptable for other reasons. So, the backstop is no longer an option. But we have a shared goal and have to come up with an alternative solution to achieve it.
DR: What are the consequences of the UK’s likely regulatory divergence from EU standards for a future trade deal and access to the single market?
JM: Where there is a change from the previous government of Theresa May is that very clearly we are leaving the customs union and the single market. So, what we are looking for is a “best in class” free trade agreement that is as ambitious as it can be, while ensuring that we retain autonomy on matters relating to regulation and tariffs and things like that.
DR: Are people living in the UK right to be concerned by the warnings published in the Operation Yellowhammer contingency plan?
JM: As a responsible government we plan for every eventuality. Though our preference is to leave with a deal, we are ready to leave without a deal and are making preparations for that and have been for some time. Those are now being stepped up. The EU and member states are doing likewise.
We all know that leaving without a deal will have consequences, but there are mitigations we can put in place. In many cases what they do is remove any cliff edge for businesses, for example. The government will obviously seek to mitigate adverse consequences that we identify or as they appear. What the documents show is that in some areas there will be challenges and it will be the job of the government to address those in as effective a way as they can.
There are various degrees of scenario. It is logical that if we leave without a deal, movement across borders will not be as fluid as it is today. We can do various thigs to minimise the risks, and we hope that relevant member states on the other side will be doing the same. They won’t be resolved overnight, there will be short-term disruption, but I am sure the goal of both sides is to ensure that as quickly as possible we return to a situation where things can move as smoothly as possible under the new circumstances and that people have access to the products they need when they need them.
DR: As a civil servant, do you share the consternation of the UK civil servants’ union, the FDA, that its members might be in breach of civil service code to ‘comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice’ if they assist the government in not requesting an extension to Article 50?
JM: I think the FDA is doing what a union would do to represent the concerns of its members. It’s flagging what those concerns might be. Our role as civil servants is to be impartial and to serve the government of the day within the law. So, I personally have no concerns, because as far as I am concerned what I am asked to do by the government I serve is within the law.
DR: From your experience are British citizens in Luxembourg well prepared for Brexit, in whatever form it eventually takes?
JM: The Luxembourg government has been very reassuring it its public comments, and in private conversations I have had, about the fact that everyone can continue to live and work here. It has assured that even in the event of no deal there will be no cliff edge--the ‘carte de séjour’ will be valid for 12 months while they apply for third-country national status under simplified procedures, and they communicated this through a letter to all British citizens living here.
What’s more, they are enacting Brexit-related legislation, some of which is designed to ensure that specific categories of UK nationals will not be affected.
DR: Are there any plans for another public event for British citizens in Luxembourg?
JM: Yes, the next citizens’ outreach event will focus on what happens next and what to do next for British people living and working here on Monday 21 October.
Details of the embssy event will be posted on Delano.lu as soon as we have them.