Early career (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and UKRep)
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Let’s start off with the start of your career. One of the themes of your career has been dealing with EU issues, MAFF, Defra, the Cabinet Office, and then the UK representation in Brussels. Was that your aim? Was dealing with EU issues one of the reasons why you joined the civil service, in the first place?
Katrina Williams (KW): No, and indeed, when I joined the civil service, I wasn’t even sure that was going to be my lifetime’s choice. I joined as a fast streamer. They ask you to tick boxes about departments you would be happy to go to. I ticked the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, as one of mine, partly because the literature said that they were going to move to Bootle, which was in the North West, close to where I’d grown up.
Actually, it was out-of-date literature from the previous Labour government. But having ticked the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, I then found myself there. Of course, at the time, because this was 1983, this really was the place where all the European Community (EC) expertise in Whitehall resided. Because it was pre-single market, and the Common Agricultural Policy, which was highly interventionist, was the most developed part of the cadre of law.
So, within two weeks of joining, in the Alcoholic Drinks Division, of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, I had visited a Babycham plant in Somerset, and I had participated in a Council working group on the EC spirit drinks regulations, which actually became the law that protected the name Scotch whisky so that it could be used only by Scotch whisky producers.
UKICE: When did you first go to UKRep, what were your reflections on the way in which the UK managed its relationship with the EU back then?
KW: Yes – I first went to UKRep in 1993, after ten years, during which I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, and where, because of the dominance of the Common Agricultural Policy as a part of the policy structure, I had done a whole range of EC jobs, negotiating jobs, including the ones in the comitology committees, where the European Commission really has the whip hand, so you really had to be sharp about influencing.
So for that department, it was a part of the lifeblood. The only British Secretary-General of the European Commission, David Williamson, had cut his teeth in that department. Elsewhere in Whitehall, it was more of a political aspect, I think, about, “Well, what is this thing of which we’re a member? How can we influence it?” And at that point, the debate about the single market was beginning to get going and one of the British Commissioners, Commissioner Cockfield, was instrumental in that.
So, it varied a little bit, but for the department I was in, it was almost existential to be able to be good at influencing.
UKICE: So, I’ve heard you say that you joined UKRep at the same time as one David Frost. He traces back some of his disillusion, I think, to some of his experiences in Brussels. I wondered whether he had a very different experience to you?
KW: Yes. Well, David and I joined as First Secretaries in the same week, in 1993. And David was one of a cadre of FCO people – nearly all men I have to say – who were intelligent, bright, and on the way up. Because at that point, this was seen as very much the place to be. I worked very closely with David because I was the First Secretary, Common Agricultural Policy, and he was the First Secretary for Financial and Economic affairs looking after the budget. So, I was responsible for most of the sins that we were trying to curb at the time.
And at the time, I didn’t get any particular impression from David of disillusionment with the European Communities, as they then were. I do, however, think I may have been responsible for a moment that might have caused that disillusionment to set in. Because he accompanied me to a comitology committee, on instruction from the Treasury, who thought that being from MAFF, I might go native.
And that committee was looking at some measure that we really didn’t like, that was going to spend a certain amount of money. We’d lobbied very hard. We’d got the bill down, I think, by 50%. But ultimately, we weren’t successful in getting it down further. David came with me, and on the way down I said, “Well, they’ll put it to a vote.” Because you always go straight to a vote in comitology committees. And he said, “Well, they will, of course, and we can then block it, can’t we?”
And I said, “We can’t block it. I can go down screaming in flames, but we will not be able to block it.” And that was the reality of majority voting, and particularly, in the comitology arena.
UKICE: Did you notice a big change in the UK’s relationship with the EU over the 20 years between your first posting to UKRep and David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech? There had been successful enlargements, the Eurozone being created. By 2013, did you think the relationship was very different to the relationship that it had been when you were first in UKRep?
KW: Yes. For one thing, the EU was a lot larger. When I first joined the civil service, there were ten member states. By 2013, we were on to 27 because I don’t think Croatia had quite joined at that point. So, simply by virtue of size, yes, it was different. Many other things had changed. The prevailing language when I started to do EU business was French.
The accession of the Central European countries, and before that the accession of Sweden, Finland, and Austria, meant that was no longer the case. Meetings, because there were more voices to be heard, had got shorter, slightly more focused on what was happening. In terms of the UK approach to this, of course the UK had been one of the proponents of enlargement to Central Europe for geopolitical reasons.
And also, with a slight unspoken agenda of supporting widening, rather than deepening. If we could widen, then we wouldn’t deepen. That wasn’t the principal driving reason for the UK’s support for successive enlargements, but that was always there in the background.
UKICE: And then, in 2013, David Cameron made his Bloomberg speech, promising potentially an in/out referendum if he got a majority after the next election. Were you surprised, as an official, sitting there?
KW: The issue had been floating around in the ether, so I don’t think the fact of the speech was necessarily a surprise. I think the necessity of saying that there would be a referendum was something of a surprise to a boring technocrat who was not fully versed in the politics of the Conservative Party.
UKICE: And in the run-up to the referendum, you were out, you were doing a brief stint out of the Ministry of Agriculture, and its successor department, Defra. I think you were in the Department of Energy and Climate Change then.
KW: I was.
UKICE: Did you just let the referendum swing by, or did you actually do any internal thinking? Of course, contingency planning wasn’t allowed, but had you done significant internal thinking about what the implications of a leave vote might be?
KW: Well, there were two aspects to the thinking that we did. Because the government was supporting Remain, there was plenty of work trying to get out the arguments for a yes vote, and for the UK remaining in the EU. And there was quite a lot of work, at all levels actually, but work led by the Cabinet Secretary to make sure departments were focused on that.
So, there was quite a lot of work on that front. As you’ve said, it was very clear that we shouldn’t be preparing for a Leave vote. This was on instruction from the Prime Minister. But you can’t stop the things that go on in your head. And it is true that although we did not commission a whole lot of work on it, we produced a two-side handwritten document, which was effectively a checklist – what you would need to do on the energy and climate front, if the UK left the EU. It was no more than two sides, and I think there were three copies in existence.
UKICE: What about managing ministerial relations? Because your Secretary of State Amber Rudd was a lead Remain campaigner, but one of the Ministers of State was Andrea Leadsom, who was an important voice in the Leave campaign. Did that make internal relations a problem? Was that awkward with the government supporting Remain, but some ministers allowed to campaign on the other side?
KW: I worked for both of them, and actually, liked both of them very much indeed. I did find that there were moments where I was getting one set of instructions from my Secretary of State, and another set of instructions, or requests for information which, in a way, were more difficult from the Minister of State. Actually, at that point, when I said separately to each of them, “This isn’t sustainable”, they were good enough friends to work out how it was going to work.
So, in the end, it wasn’t a problem. But certainly, in terms of my team, and staff, more broadly, in the department, I had to say to them, “If you ever think there’s a problem, just ventilate it, just tell me if you ever think if there’s a problem.” And there was more anxiety that there might be a problem, than there were problems in reality.
UKICE: And where were you when you heard the result?
KW: Well, I almost failed to vote in the referendum because there was flash flooding in central London that day, and my journey home was very, very difficult. I finally crashed through the doors of the polling station at about two minutes to ten, where my next-door neighbour, who was doing the administration, shouted out my name and address, and they gave me a slip, and I put it in the box as they were sealing it.
And one of the people there said, “You came through that door like your life depended on it.” And my neighbour – who knew what I did for a living – said, “Well, actually it does.” That night, I watched the first results come in. I could see what was going to happen. I always had an anxiety that the vote was going to go “no”. Not because a no vote is wrong, but because I knew most people in the world I lived in thought it would not go that way, and it would be a big shock to the system.
So, I went to bed early because I didn’t want to be tired the following day. So, I actually heard lying in bed, as the radio came on. And John Humphrys said, “We’re out.”
UKICE: So were you then scrambled back into work the next day for massive planning?
KW: I was going in anyway the following day, which was a Friday. And quite a lot of my colleagues, on Fridays, would normally work from home. Actually, that Friday, everybody was in, but the building was very quiet. I think there was a sense of, for many people, there was a sense of shock. That Friday was less about “now, what are we going to do?” It was more about giving people a bit of time and space to absorb this, and to have some time to think about “now, what do we do?”
After the referendum
UKICE: So, we’re then turfed into the Conservative leadership battle, Theresa May became Prime Minister, and one immediate consequence for you was that the Department of Energy and Climate Change was abolished, and absorbed into the business department. Did you have any notice of that? What did that actually mean for you, and your teams working there?
KW: I found out because one of my staff saw it on Twitter. So, it was one of those rather unexpected machinery of government changes, and I remember going from floor to floor in the building, trying to share with people what we already knew. Greg Clark was our new Secretary of State, and to his enormous credit, the first thing he did was visit us in Whitehall Place, to talk about his ambition for a single department that integrated energy and climate change and business together, which I think was enormously important.
But it was a big leadership challenge. This was a department which now had two permanent secretaries and I think ten or eleven directors-general. So, this was a big leadership and organisational challenge on top of the challenge of working out what the referendum vote meant.
UKICE: And you had a very new permanent secretary, as well, didn’t you?
KW: Alex [Chisholm] had been there, I think, for about nine days.
UKICE: Did you then have to do any Brexit work in the business department? Did your role change enormously in the new business department?
KW: It changed a little bit, in a sense that I broadly continued with my role until about the beginning of September, when the pragmatic realisation that we now had two EU units led to a change. We had the former business department unit, and we had the one that I had been heading up. And at that point, I handed over the former DECC EU unit to Sam Beckett, on the grounds that it made more sense for them to be working, which is what we wanted, as an integrated unit.
So, from the beginning of September, for the first time in some years in my career, I had a brief period where I wasn’t doing any of the EU work.
UKICE: But that seems very weird, because we’re setting up the new Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and the big focus for the government is going to be negotiating an exit from the EU. Did they ask you to go to DExEU? Did people come to you and say, “You’re one of our biggest EU experts in government. Of course, you’ve got to come and work on the EU exit.” Or did they really rather say, “Well, we don’t really trust you because you know too much about the EU, and you’d probably take their side a bit too much.”
KW: Nobody approached me. I mean, Jeremy Heywood’s approach was very much to recruit the “brightest and best” regardless of previous EU experience. There was a sense that what you needed was new blood to look at this problem afresh. I think there may have been a sense that those of us who had done a lot of this work, might be a bit too captured by it.
I, myself, did not want to work on it, to be perfectly honest. I could see that was a bit of a conflict of interest. So nobody said to me, “Do you want to go and work in DExEU?”and I didn’t mind. However, Alex Chisholm – who was then the Permanent Secretary of the merged department – was planning his departmental structures and the structure he introduced in December, had me running all the international and EU work for the department.
So, Alex was thinking about, “Well, who do you put where, and how do you deploy your assets?” And around about the same time, Ivan Rogers had a conversation with me, as one of the people who would be a potential candidate to take over from Shan Morgan – then the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU – who had just been successful in becoming the Permanent Secretary in the Welsh government. And also, the Foreign Office had a conversation with me about that role. Because I think they had the apprehension that you needed somebody who had done this stuff before.
UKICE: So, having had reservations about working on EU exit, what made you then want to go into UKRep, and the circumstances in early 2017, to take on that role?
KW: Some very honest person in the HR world did say to me at one point, “Nobody is going to want you for anything other than EU exit, so you might as well decide which of those jobs you want.” Honestly, up to that point because I’d worked in UKRep twice before, I thought my UKRep negotiating days were over – I’d been there and done that. But it occurred to me that this was a particularly challenging time to do the job. It would require a particular skill to do it and it needed to be done well.
So, it was a challenge that I wanted but that, perhaps, if we hadn’t left the EU, I wouldn’t have taken.
UKRep under Theresa May government
UKICE: And how difficult was it to go into UKRep, in the immediate aftermath of – I’m not quite sure on the timings – but Ivan has resigned in quite dramatic fashion, after lots of hostile briefings, from No.10, or whatever. Was morale at rock bottom in UKRep when you went there? What was it like?
KW: Ivan resigned over Christmas, in January, and Shan also left in January. So when I arrived in April I remember one person saying to me, “Thank goodness you’re here.” Because actually, the organisation had-
UKICE: So, you’d accepted the job before Ivan resigned, had you?
KW: No, there was a competition which took place in early February, and because it had to be approved by lots of people, including David Davis as Secretary of State at DEXEU, Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and No.10, that took time. I arrived in early April, having been confirmed in the job in mid-March.
Ivan had left in quite a dramatic fashion, and that was very traumatic for the organisation. Because he’d been a very present leader, I think it’s safe to say.
Shan had then gone in January, and there had been a gap at deputy perm rep level. Peter Curwen and Angus Lapsley were still there, as the ECOFIN Director and the PSC Ambassador, and Tim [Barrow] had arrived in January, but was very much preoccupied, as you might imagine, and spending a lot of his time in London. So, people were quite glad that we were returning to the normal structure, in a way. I think Ivan, Shan, Peter and Angus, had done a remarkable job in leading an organisation in which the “no” vote may or may not have been a shock.
But for UKRep, the vote was an existential question. What is your Representation to the EU if you are a departing member state? They’d done a very good job but it was a huge issue. Safe to say, there were a range of people in UKRep and a range of views. Some people had arrived believing that there was going to be a UK Presidency of the EU in 2017, and that they would be chairing Working Groups during the Presidency. There were some long-term members of staff, what the FCDO term locally engaged staff, who were used to working for one of the best outfits in town, for whom this was very, very hard.
So just giving a bit of direction – saying “Well, this is how we’re going to approach the situation now” helped. And in particular, being clear that because we didn’t know what the relationship was going to be, we should for the moment carry on negotiating as before, as though all these things were going to apply to us forever. I think that, in itself, helped people a little bit.
UKICE: So, we’ve had DExEU set up, with Olly Robbins, permanent secretary of DExEU, as chief official negotiator, and David Davis is the Secretary of State in charge, with a slightly awkward relationship perhaps with Theresa May over that. But what was UKRep’s role in supporting withdrawal negotiations? Did you just provide teas and coffees as people come over from London? Or were you very involved in developing the tactics, and the approaches there?
KW: Yes. So, formally speaking, for this period, we in UKRep were part of DExEU. Not completely part because we were still paid by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And that, in itself, that twin ownership was a slightly difficult situation. Because the Foreign Office, clearly, was not terrifically happy that one of its flagship posts had suddenly gone off to DExEU. How far were we involved in the tactics, and the negotiations? Tim was very heavily involved.
My role was much more about doing the day-to-day business in COREPER I, of which there was a lot. Tim was very heavily involved the exit negotiations, although I think there was a certain restraint about involving UKRep more broadly too much in the negotiations. We did get very involved in David Davis’s visits which were fairly frequent, and indeed, I supported him in a couple of those, including advising him about the individuals he was going to meet, and what he’d find, if he met them.
It is more difficult for me to say how far what we were feeding back – and we were feeding back – got factored into the tactics of how you were going to handle the negotiations.
UKICE: You were talking about the division of labour in UKRep, of Tim Barrow doing the negotiations but you doing business as usual. So, did you have to rethink your approach to business as usual, as a departing member state? The UK sat in the conversations but less able to form alliances with other member states on things?
KW: It was just different. I mean, the first thing I had to do was to establish with the EU institutions, and with my EU counterparts, the approach we were going to take. Because as I arrived in COREPER, at least one of my counterparts said to me, “Oh, a UK Deputy Permanent Representative. We wondered whether you were going to bother.” So, clearly, because nobody had ever been in this situation before, there was a certain amount about just stating what we were going to do, what we weren’t going to do.
And that approach that I took of saying, “Well, actually, we’re going to behave like a normal member state. Because we just don’t know how much of this we will need to take on when we leave the European Union.” That set the parameters. I did have to think quite carefully about how I positioned the UK, as we were going through all of this. There were some negotiations which we really were completely in because they came into effect very quickly, like the annual fisheries negotiations.
There were many things where we might well have needed to be part of it, but didn’t know because we didn’t know the nature of our future relationship. And there were pieces of legislation where we definitely wanted to shape the framework – for example, on Horizon Europe, so that we had the option, as a third country, of participation on the best terms possible. So, you always had to think about it from the perspective of “how will I feel about this, if I am a country that is not in the EU”, in the different potential scenarios.
It was certainly true that tactically it would not have been wise to try and lead from the front in the way that the UK had always done. That meant that I did do a lot of work on alliances, and actually, found no difficulty in that. Not least because the UK, as one of the four biggest member states, still mattered mathematically in an environment in which most files were decided by Qualified Majority Voting which took account of the size of member states. Right up to the day we left, people were still soliciting my support for things. So, in that context, I was able to solicit other people’s support.
UKICE: And what about engagement from Whitehall? Were Whitehall departments thinking, “Well, we’re leaving, so what’s the point?” Or ministers thinking, “Well, I never really liked going to that council anyway, and now, we’ve voted to leave. Surely, I don’t have to go to the environment council, the transport council?”
KW: It varied a bit – actually, quite a lot across the piece, in terms of whether individual departments felt that it was worth the candle. And it depended on individual ministers. Interestingly, some of the ministers who kept going, who kept coming as stalwarts throughout, were ministers who had been on the Brexit side of the vote. But who understood the importance of engaging internationally, and saw the councils as rather a good opportunity to engage bilaterally with colleagues.
So, it was a mixed picture. It’s safe to say that as we got through 2019, attendance diminished. One of the most stalwart attendees, and he came to practically every council, except the very, very last one, was George Eustice. Because he understood that in terms of the fisheries negotiations, for example, you were going to be more influential if you were present, whatever you thought of the European Union.
UKICE: The Europe Unit was recreated in the Cabinet Office in September 2017 when Olly Robbins left DExEU, and Philip Rycroft became the permanent secretary there. Did that make any difference? You said UKRep was part of DExEU, did you feel less part of DExEU then, and had a new focus into the Europe Unit?
KW: Not notably. The personalities and characters remained the same. I think there was quite a lot of unease in DExEU just at the personal level, because, of course, what Olly said was he was taking with him the brightest and the best. Well, that was possibly a slightly difficult message for some of the people remaining in DExEU. But from our perspective, I think the cast list remained very similar.
UKICE: You’re in Brussels. The Irish are clearly launching a massive diplomatic effort to get the EU to ensure that their interests are addressed in the withdrawal agreement, rather than left to the future relationship. Did you pick up on that, do you think, more than people in London? Were you involved in feeding back where things were going on Ireland and on other issues?
KW: We did a great deal of feeding back what we were seeing, and actually Tim and I talked a great deal. And Tim was very, very present in London, and with Olly, as things were going along. So, yes, we did feed it back, and from where I sat you could tell what was happening, for example with Ireland. From my perspective in relation to my colleagues in COREPER I, because the COREPER I programme of work is just so heavy, they were rather less directly engaged in the groupings that were looking at the UK’s departure. But certainly, you would pick it up, and we fed it back.
UKICE: And I’m just interested whether your colleagues, your deputy perm colleagues actually thought the UK wouldn’t really leave?
KW: It varied. And their moods varied, according to which day you caught them on. Some days they were irritated with us, some days they were sad, some days they thought we were going to leave, some days they thought there was a chance we might stay. I did a lot of trying to set in context for them the things they were reading in the media. I discovered that a lot of them read The Guardian, and therefore had a particular perspective.
It’s certainly true, that as late as early July 2019, one of my colleagues said to me, “You’ll still be here at Christmas. And I think you’ll still be here at Christmas, the following year.” There was still a sense of “is it really going to happen? Are they really going to go?” So, quite a lot of my job was saying, “This is actually going to happen. You need to think about this as though it’s going to happen.”
UKICE: I just wondered, to what extent, the view in UKRep was as the British government developed its position from Lancaster House to Florence to Mansion House? Did you think, yes, we can see this is a sellable package with our experience of the EU. Or is she asking the EU to shift really a lot? Is it that plausible? Did you have a view on the feasibility of negotiating something like Chequers?
KW: It would have been terrifically challenging, but actually, the spirit of UKRep, through the years, has been, “Give me the impossible, and I’ll negotiate for you.” But, it came with some important caveats that there was a risk that you overestimated the desire of the counterparty to give you particular favours, compared with the strength of attachment to the four freedoms. And that would always have been the issue.
And I think there would always have been trade-offs to be taken, and in some ways, success in negotiating it would have depended as much on how much flexibility was available at our end.
UKICE: Some of our political interviewees have suggested actually, that they thought that Chequers had quite a positive reception in some member states. And actually, that there was more sympathy for it than became evident later at Salzburg.
KW: People were interested in it, certainly, I remember the day it came out – I hadn’t seen the entire document the day it came out, but hosted a business breakfast, having seen parts of it, but not all of it. There was interest there – although at that stage no-one had had time to read the document – and a lot of interest from the more pragmatic of my counterparts. COREPER I Ambassadors are pragmatists by nature, by and large, so there was quite a lot of interest in “what is this, what does it mean, what would be the requirement?”
I think the mistake would be to overestimate the degree to which, if it came to a trade-off between that interest, and the four freedoms, pragmatism would win out. And certainly, on individual issues, although there were countries that wanted a solution that actually would have been in line with Chequers, the degree to which they were willing to expend their negotiating capital within the 27, had limits. It was possible to overestimate that, I think.
UKICE: So, just going to that prolonged period from Autumn 2018, the tunnel, the emergence of the Theresa May withdrawal package with the Protocol, etc., through to all those rejected Parliamentary votes, and the stalemate, and the threat of no deal. What actually was the mood in UKRep and among your EU interlocutors then? Were they just looking on with amazement, and horror? Or did they expect Parliament to pass the deal that had been done with the EU?
KW: So, within UKRep, I mean it was a difficult period for everybody – and I should say the colleagues I had in UKRep, the attachés I had in UKRep, were some of the brightest, sharpest, and most resilient people you could hope to come across – because they were dealing with their own uncertainty about what was going to happen. We did a lot of work to focus on the things you can change, and not the things you can’t.
But they were also getting a lot of the day-to-day horror, irritation, sadness, from their colleagues. And actually, supporting them through that period was a big part of what we, as the leadership team, needed to do. Almost an impossible task because if you’re saying to people that there is uncertainty about practically every aspect of their lives, that’s quite difficult. But we did do a lot of planning for what UKMis would become when we left the EU.
And that helped people to start looking towards the future. As far as my EU counterparts were concerned I think there was a certain amount of trepidation. I think all of my counterparts wanted something that would work. I don’t think anybody wanted this to end in a situation that was difficult either for the 27, or for the UK. That was mixed with a bit of irritation, a bit of disbelief at certain points. They were reading the media that you tend to read if you are not British, which included quite a lot of coverage of people who were not members of the government, who were saying some quite extraordinary things about the relationship.
But overall, I think it was really that people wanted the relationship to work. There were some very difficult moments going into COREPER the day after Salzburg. Some of my counterparts came up and hugged me. Others said to me, “I love Britain, but wow, your government.” And others kind of scuttled away as I attempted to go and have a bit of a conversation with them.
So, there were some rocky moments along the way, but overall, I think people really – they wanted a solution, and they really wanted it to work. And when the votes in Parliament happened, actually, I think we were all at my Irish counterpart’s house. Because he was having a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and when of the votes went no, people were quite – some of my counterparts – were quite genuinely shocked.
UKICE: Was UKRep helping UK government departments understand the implications of no deal, and were you helping at all with their no-deal planning, as the people who were across all the consequences, and seeing what was going on?
KW: Yes, my attachés were very firmly integrated into it, and at the more senior level, Hermione Gough, who was our director for EU Exit, and Will Macfarlane who was Peter Curwen’s successor, and me, when I was not trying to negotiate something in COREPER, were involved in talking individually to the departments. But also, as part of the Cabinet Office, and DExEU facilitated process.
Boris Johnson government
UKICE: So, Theresa May’s deal goes nowhere, she steps down as Prime Minister, and the European elections, the Brexit Party success, and Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister. Did anything change for you in UKRep, or did the attitude of other member states change when they saw Boris Johnson being elected Prime Minister?
KW: The other member states, initially, for them, well, it’s a different Prime Minister. I don’t think they quite understood the change, if you see what I mean? I think the thing that did change matters, it certainly changed things for us, and it changed them for them, was the decision that was taken in late July, or early August, 2019, that the UK would no longer participate in EU meetings, unless they had a resonance beyond our departure.
And that was quite a moment. I mean, it was certainly a moment for us because this was the moment at which I had to say all my attachés, “Stop going to your Working Groups.” And many of them had to leave without saying goodbye. But actually, I think it was probably the right decision because it had become increasingly difficult for me to position us in negotiating legislation that I knew now wasn’t really going to apply in the UK.
And particularly in those circumstances, which happened all too often, where we held the swing vote, or something close to it. So, it dealt with a bit of awkwardness there, but it did send a very powerful symbol to the other member states, that this was real. And that we were going to leave. And I do remember, having told my colleagues that this was going to be the approach, having quite a lengthy session with the colleague who had said to me in early July, “You’ll still be here the Christmas after next.” And that individual then said to me, “Okay, okay. I get it. You’re leaving. I have thought of a list of things that we will still need to cooperate with the UK on, after you leave.” And so, there was a moment of realism brought by that.
UKICE: And what about personalities? I think David Frost has said that it made life easier, in some ways, for the civil service, because now, with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, that leave-remain balance in the Theresa May Cabinet with everything slightly stalemated had disappeared. And it was very clear where the government wanted to go. Did that make life easier in terms of clarity of direction, and where the leadership was?
KW: I mean, day-to-day life didn’t feel very much easier. For one thing, I had to work out how we now positioned ourselves. I think when we decided not to participate in things, there was a presumption that we would always vote yes. Actually, in QMV, that doesn’t work because you might send something through that otherwise wouldn’t have got through. So, there was a certain amount we had to re-programme the way we were doing things.
We had to think about things a bit differently. So, I wouldn’t say it was easier. I think it was just different. And it became even more important to deliver those hard messages to counterparts. And to deliver them in a very direct way sometimes.
UKICE: So, were you surprised when we actually got a negotiated withdrawal agreement with the EU in that period in October 2019?
KW: I always thought we would. I always thought we’d do a deal. So, I never thought that we would get to the point where because of negotiating failure, we’d not got a deal. There was only one point, I think, at all, where I thought the UK might possibly leave without a deal. And that was in April 2019, when there was a European Council, it was the 10th of April, and that was the one that the 27 held, to decide whether to continue negotiating with us.
And it was the one that was held against the background of some people believing that we had not indulged in sincere cooperation with the EU. But other than that, I wasn’t surprised when we got a deal. Because as a negotiator I was very familiar with the concept that a deal is always impossible, until the moment you do it.
UKICE: And do you think that ministers understood what they were signing up for in the Northern Ireland Protocol that was in that 2019 deal?
KW: I’m not sure. You’d need to ask them.
UKICE: We get the deal, we get the general election, move to negotiations about the future relationship, and it is immediately sideswiped by Covid. But I’m just wondering, what impact Covid had on those negotiations? Or if that changed with UKRep on the ground in Brussels, or was it just that you were on a set of computer screens sitting in Brussels, and the other people were on a set of computer screens, sitting in London, or whatever? Did it make any working difference to the place?
KW: Not beyond the fact that you were, like practically everybody in the world, having to deal with how you do conversations on screens, rather than anything else. If nothing else, I think it may have made the negotiations a bit more inclusive. Because it became easier for people who were not based in either London or Brussels, to participate. So, actually, there were experts who were able to participate, sitting in a shed in Sheffield, or something like that.
So, we were just going through the same thing that everybody really was going through. Of course, we had just left the European Union at this point. So, we were having the challenge about how you develop and maintain your relationships with the Commission, the member states, and members of the European Parliament, being outside the EU. And also, not being able to go and see them in person.
UKICE: So, did you already have a plan then of how you were going to change those relationships as a third country, that was ready to go, until slightly put off by Covid?
KW: We did. In fact, we had started implementing some of it, which was much more about classic diplomacy, public diplomacy, events. We had a whole programme of events planned with EU counterparts. We actually did one, I think at the Swedish permanent representation, with our Swedish counterparts, about the marine environment, for which we got the Executive Producer of the Blue Planet TV series over. All the questions, of course, were about what David Attenborough was like to work with.
But it got people really interested in what the UK was doing on that front. So, we had a whole programme of things like that, which of course, either had to be postponed, or changed to a virtual approach when Covid came.
UKICE: I’m just intrigued as you’re watching the EU legislate, had you switched into external lobbying mode? How did that work while you were sitting there with the UK no longer at the table, or whatever, or negotiations?
KW: Yes, we had. And indeed, we’d been doing the switch before we left, in a certain sort of way, in that we had been integrated into the groupings of the third countries. We were regularly invited to events that they had with the Commission to talk about what EU legislation meant for third countries. So, we had done that. And in particular, that meant developing relationships even further with the European Parliament because it is the most open of the institutions.
And it meant working the relationships we all still had with members of the Council, and the Commission.
UKICE: And as you’ve got that third country relationship while the EU continue to legislate, you’ve obviously got the negotiations going on about the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Did you ever think that they wouldn’t do a deal there by the end of the year when transition ended? Were you surprised the government didn’t ask for an extension that summer?
KW: Again, I thought that there would be a deal. And I wasn’t surprised that the government didn’t ask for an extension. Because every time, negotiations will expand to fit the time available. So, I always thought that there would be a deal, and I always thought it would come quite late. And Christmas Eve is a prime time.
UKICE: What was it like that Christmas Eve then in Brussels?
KW: Well, by then, I had left Brussels, and was working for the Scottish government.
UKICE: Oh, right. So, when did you leave Brussels?
KW: I left Brussels at the end of October 2020. So, I didn’t quite see out the negotiations in Brussels. In fact, the plan originally had been that I would leave in January 2020. Then the second plan, once it was clear that we were going to be a member for a bit longer, was that I would go in March 2020. And then, I stayed on until October.
But I left in October, and the Scottish government were in need of a bit of extra DG firepower to get them – to help them tackle the twin challenges of Covid, and the end of the EU transition period.
UKICE: So, you’re looking on, whether there’s a deal or not, assuring the Scottish government, “Don’t worry, there will be a deal. There will be a deal.”
KW: Well, actually, being able to say to Mike Russell, who was my minister at the time, “In my water, I feel that there can be a deal.” That was quite helpful, I think, to them.
UKICE: Do you think people registered, in businesses and elsewhere, just how big of a difference trading relations with the EU would look with a deal? Did the government actually do enough to indicate to people, that even with a deal, there would be quite significant changes in the way in which they had to trade with the EU?
KW: I think the government did a lot. Did the published literature sometimes underplay some of the scale of change? I think it might have done, whether that was for political reasons, or simply because we bureaucrats are used to dealing with bureaucratic change, and we underestimate the extent to which that is not the natural territory of business, I don’t know.
UKICE: So, going back to the change from being UKRep to UKMis, did it formally change when we left the political institutions in January 2020 or at the end of transition on 31 December?
KW: No, it changed at the end of January 2020. So, it changed as we left the institutions. We had the whole issue of how do you change the nameplates without the press of the world watching you do it? And the taking down of the flag. So, it changed at the end of January, and we became the UK Mission to the European Union.
UKICE: So, structurally, what were the significant changes that you thought you had to make to operate as a UK Mission, rather than as a UK Representation?
KW: So, structurally, initially, not that much. Because we were still negotiating the future relationship. So, I think it was the end of the negotiations that was the trigger for structural change, rather than anything else. Certainly, during that period, we did create a Director, Trade post, which Rory O’Donnell occupied, which reflected the fact that we were thinking and behaving as a third country. But the biggest structural changes followed the end of the negotiation. Because actually, we hadn’t finished negotiating.
UKICE: Interesting. And did that imply a big reduction in the size of the people there?
KW: Yes, in terms of size and seniority. So, with my departure we stopped having a Director-General level deputy. Because if you’re not negotiating legislation, you probably don’t need somebody at that level. The Perm Rep role became a DG-level role. And gradually, the organisation shed some of the additional Director capacity it had got. Some of the teams shrank naturally. Teams like the visits team, because we weren’t having as many ministerial visitors as previously, shrank, and that was natural. That was what I would have expected to happen.
UKICE: And what about those people finding jobs back in Whitehall? Did they find that Whitehall departments were valuing their EU skills and knowledge? You mentioned that you went first back into the Scottish government, rather than back into Whitehall. Was that because people said, “Well, actually, we don’t need EU skills and knowledge. That’s a bit 2000s, or 1990s.”
KW: Re-integration, if you’ve been out of Whitehall, if you’ve been on loan, even if you’ve only just been across the Channel, was never terribly straightforward, even when we were members. But for most people, we were able to find a good landing. They were highly talented people. And of course, departments like the Department for International Trade, needed people with negotiating skills, wherever you had got them.
If you were more senior, there was certainly a bit of a sense of “these people have unfortunate CVs because they’ve been a bit too close to all of this activity”. And this was the Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson era, so anybody who had got this on their CV felt a little bit suspect. And I had a few people say to me, “I’m not sure we need people with your skill set, in quite the way that we did.”
The Scottish government, of course, absolutely embraced it. And I now think we’re through that period and government is relearning the value of those skills, though to be perfectly honest, I still don’t think Whitehall is thinking quite strategically enough about what sort of EU skills you need, now we’re not a member state. Although there are a lot of people around Whitehall who have got EU something in their CV, that’s quite often the ability to argue your case in a Cabinet Office meeting, rather than deep knowledge of how the institutions operate, or something like that.
So, I think there’s a bit of work that the UK government hasn’t yet quite got the stomach for, which is thinking about what sort of cadre of EU skills do you need in the future.
UKICE: And relationship management has gone back into FCDO in contrast with when we are members when it was based in the Cabinet Office with the Treasury providing successive permanent representatives. Do you think that is the right place for it to sit long-term?
KW: I’m not sure. I think there’s an issue. I mean, I think, and I’ve said this to people in the FCDO, you need to work really hard at it, to make it work from the FCDO. Because – please aim off here because I am a former Deputy Head of the European secretariat in the Cabinet Office – but I always used to think there were significant advantages in having the co-ordination lie with people who had a line to the Prime Minister, but who were genuinely impartial.
Now, clearly, the Foreign Office could be that impartial broker, but in a way, I think it would need to work quite hard on developing the relationships with Whitehall. And understanding the domestic agenda that might be impacted by bits of your foreign and EU policy is essential to that, and, understandably not natural territory for the FCDO. And many of the levers of the future EU relationship rest with those Whitehall departments.
The other element is the relationship with the devolved administrations, which at the strategic level has always been tricky for the FCDO because of the ambitions of the DAs to have their own presence in the traditionally reserved territory of foreign relations. The relationships work well at the working level. In quite a lot of Overseas Posts, the DAs have their own offices within the embassy, and that all works swimmingly, and they work under the auspices of the diplomatic cover there.
I think it is a much more edgy relationship when it comes to the how do you feel about Scottish or Welsh ministers going on their own, and seeing people in X country? And I think it has got an edge that would require quite a lot of relationship building to put the Foreign Office in a place of saying that it was doing that, and supporting them.
UKICE: So, your last job in government, you actually came back, full circle, back to Defra, Director-General of International Borders, which you could say is quite a big implementation job. So, what was your view of how Defra was getting on with this giant set of tasks that Brexit created for it?
KW: I think Defra has done, and is doing phenomenally well. It was the most Brexit-impacted department of all of the departments. From being the kind of slightly esoteric department in the corner of Cabinet Office meetings, Defra has come front and centre. I think it had done an amazing amount to do the things that needed to be done just to keep the food supply flowing and to think about all the other bits of legislation that needed to be changed and adapted.
There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces of primary and secondary legislation that needed to be passed, and Defra did that really well. I think it did that in part by sucking in large amounts of human resource to do it. It is now at the point of being able to think strategically about what it needs to run these relationships in the future, and what is it that it actually needs to do? But it’s a really important department in terms of, for example, making the Windsor Agreement work.
Because it’s all down to the nuts and bolts of how do you make sure that the food supply continues to flow in the right way.
UKICE: And I mean, it’s also got, and I realise this wasn’t quite what you were being asked to do when you were back at Defra, but it also has a massive policy agenda. Big reforms on agriculture, fisheries and environment. It was potentially in the forefront of the Retained EU Law Bill. Is it capable of managing all these huge big reforms simultaneously? Or has the government bitten off a bit more than it can chew, in trying to do all of that big policy change, on top of the big implementation task, of just making the agreements work?
KW: Yes, it has a lot on its plate, undoubtedly. I mean, I think one of the tricks for the future is going to be the way in which you can flex, and prioritise what you now absolutely need to do now. Because after all, they’ve passed the agriculture legislation, the fisheries legislation, the environment act, and that means that they have the framework. So, in a sense, you can now be a little bit more strategic about what you’re going to do when.
I think the other big challenge that the department faces, is in terms of taking the stakeholders along on the journey. That’s certainly the case, in terms of realising the ambitions of the Agriculture Act, which were all about taking your agricultural policy in a direction that was UK directed, that helped you to sustain the environment, and enhance the environment. That requires significant and skilful stakeholder engagement.
So, in some ways, it’s as much how politically you can do all these things, as how physically you can do them all.
UKICE: Do you see Whitehall losing its EU knowledge? You mentioned, that in the old days, it was a prime posting for a FCO person. That decayed a bit over time. But do you think that Whitehall will retain EU knowledge once the cohort of people who actually experienced being inside the EU has moved on, and moved out, or retired?
KW: I think it will need to work on it, and it will need a plan for doing this. And bodies like the Diplomatic Academy have done a certain amount of that, and they now have some really quite good modules for doing it. But I think what you also need to do is to know who your cadre is, and what skills they’ve got, and to track them. And I don’t think the government is yet at the point of doing that.
It is true that quite a lot of those rather brilliant people I talked about in UKRep that I worked with, have decided to leave the civil service, or to take a career break, and go and do something else. How you maintain contact with them, I think, is a really interesting question. I’m in touch with quite a lot of them because we occasionally used to have UKRep reunions. But formally speaking, it would be quite good just to be able to tap into some of those people, even if you don’t re-recruit them, to have them to share what it really feels like, and how the dynamics really work between the Council, and the Commission, and the European Parliament.
UKICE: And just to end on, we’ve now got a reset, what we’re told is a new mood with Brussels, new sets of arrangements to manage the TCA, and post-election potentially, a look at the implementation of the TCA. I just wondered whether, from your very long experience of watching Whitehall handle EU relations, work out things, do you think we actually know how to get the best out of those arrangements?
And are we able to think strategically about where we want to use them to manage the relationships in a diplomatic capability, to make some progress on UK priorities?
KW: Yes. I mean, they’re new arrangements. So, on both sides, I think there will be a little bit of experimentation as we get going. Actually, I’m pretty optimistic about the ability of the Whitehall regime to make those arrangements work. I think the key thing is that you have something that can take a view across the piece about which battles do you want to fight, and which battles you put off for a bit later
And that, to me, is one of the key things, and if I were sitting in the Foreign Office, thinking about this as the body that now runs this, I would be thinking, “And how do I get Whitehall working as a seamless piece in all of this?” Some of the arrangements – I’ve seen the arrangements that existed to govern the relationship on things like sanitary and phytosanitary rules – those relationships are based on personal relationships that have existed for years, so they’ve been pretty easy to operate at the working level.
UKICE: Will those relations decay if people are only seeing each other every few months in specialised committees, or are the arrangements enough to maintain that personal relationship?
KW: I think formal arrangements are never enough. You always need to be able to pick up the phone and talk to people and do the business that way. That’s one of the first rules of diplomacy of working in the EU: the formal meetings are only a part of the story. So, I think there will need to be a willingness on both parts to do those things. What I’ve seen, suggests to me that there will be.
UKICE: And among ministers, as well among officials?
KW: I’m less sure about ministers. I think there is a bit of thinking to be done about, at what point, and how do you want to deploy ministers, in all of this? I’m not sure that the government has yet quite got its head into that space. There are some ministers who, as I was saying earlier on, have always understood, even if you profoundly disagree with the EU institutions, the value of engagement with the institutions. And many of those are still in government.