Stephen Wall says the Irish border could thwart hard exitby Alex Dean / April 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Britain is on the verge of the most dramatic constitutional event in its post-war history. In less than a year we will leave Europe, having been enmeshed in its framework since 1973.
The exit process has so far served as a brutal reality check. Issues of the most pressing importance—Northern Ireland in particular—remain unresolved. To make matters worse, the ugly politics of the referendum campaign have failed to dissipate. Britain is engulfed in the fiercest of political rows with little sign of reconciliation. Most of all, there is uncertainty about what this almighty leap in dark means for Britain in the 21st century.
Few are so well qualified to interpret all this as Stephen Wall, one of Britain’s most senior former diplomats. “I first became a pro-European when de Gaulle vetoed British accession in 1963,” he told me recently in Prospect’s Westminster offices (Wall was just 16 at the time). He began his diplomatic career at the Foreign Office and eventually worked his way up to Ambassador to the EU between 1995 and 2000. He held a host of other senior diplomatic roles during a glittering career, including Ambassador to Portugal and Chair of the EU Secretariat for the Cabinet Office.
With the caveat that “prediction is a mug’s game,” we charted our way through the Brexit landscape. Wall was outspoken from the off.
A fundamental problem, he told me, is that the unprecedented nature of the process means the government is improvising. On the Irish border, he suggests that “I don’t think they had really thought about it.” This is now the hinge on which the whole Brexit process turns; a hard Brexit means a hard border. Yet the government has vowed to deliver the first and avoid the second.
“The government has made this unambiguous commitment about Northern Ireland which means that either they’ve got to come up with some clever telematic solution—which nobody I’ve talked to thinks is plausible—or we’ve got to stay in a customs union.”
The idea that technology could solve the border problem has been called “magical thinking” in Brussels—and what the EU says tends to stick.
But, Wall adds, “Theresa May said something interesting recently, that maybe we’d have to be in a customs union for longer… I can’t think of any reason why she would have said that unless at least the thought was in her mind.”
“All the precedents for trade deals are that you’re looking at several years”
“And if we’re in a customs union, and 20 months later we’re still in it, is that going to be such a huge deal? It seems hard to think that it is,” Wall ventured. Then he went a step further. “The single market would raise its head again,” he said, “because how do you get access for our services and financial services? This is clearly critical.”
“The evolution of things over time might change, both in terms of our perceptions and our partners’.”
It was a staggering call from the former ambassador: a soft exit could still be on the cards. But in the event we do leave the single market and customs union—which is still the current plan—we will need to strike a free trade deal with Europe. The government has agreed a transition period which will end in 2020, at which point new arrangements will need to be in place. But if, as Wall suggests, there is some sort of an “evolution,” could that not be extended?
“Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but if you look at what’s happened, our government—and to some extent the Tory Party—have come to terms with certain concessions that they would once have thought inconceivable.” Wall thinks the EU for its part would be open to the idea.
He was sounding optimistic. But could talks still collapse? “Yes they could.”
When our discussion turned to certain figures in the Leave camp, Wall took a hard line. “One of the striking things about the campaign, and one of the reasons I think it was so difficult to get a grip on, was its sort of imperviousness to factual argument,” he told me.
I asked whether that imperviousness lingered among Leavers today. His reply was “Yes… I think if May had the strength to do it she should remove Boris Johnson from the cabinet.”
“I think that his position on Brexit was totally opportunistic. I was told by somebody in the European Commission that in a conversation before the referendum he said ‘I don’t want to have to vote to leave but I might have to.’ Which is if true is a pretty sure example of opportunism.”
“He’s not respected among our partners I’m told by foreign ministers… I think you are a more effective Foreign Secretary if your colleagues think you are somebody trustworthy,” Wall says. “Let alone what it does for the picture of Britain among our partners and elsewhere.”
That becomes even more of a problem when faced with Brexit. “I think it’s pretty serious,” he warned.
“I would think twice because of Brexit” about a diplomatic career now
“We are deliberately taking our largest market, and our largest vehicle of influence, and saying ‘screw that.’ We’re going to remove ourselves from it.”
You don’t have to be a genius to think that’s a bad idea, Wall argued. “It is straightforward common sense.”
This is all the more foolish given Britain’s previous success in fighting for its interests inside the EU. “Although our partners sometimes have thought of us as a pain in the ass, we have actually been quite effective on some of the issues, including as a campaigner for human rights… and our voice on those issues will go.”
Wall’s optimism seemed to have faded. Given the folly of the Brexit project, I had one final question. He spent decades serving Britain in the diplomatic service at highest level. If Wall were a young man now, would Brexit make him think twice before joining?
“That’s a very difficult question. I’ve got one or two friends who are very upset by Brexit but who are now working on it… and in a way, thank God they are, because they actually know about the European Union.”
“I think if I were thinking about a career in the diplomatic service, I would think twice because of Brexit.”
“The attraction is there are challenges, but I would be thinking to myself I would be joining for a country whose diplomatic clout is diminished.”
Wall will continue to play his part on the outside. He has been commissioned by the Cabinet Office to write a history of Britain in Europe. His second volume—which takes us from the 1975 referendum up to the Single European Act a decade later—will be published in the near future.
I’m sure historians will have plenty to be going on with when they eventually turn to our own times.