Britain’s four-decade membership of the EU has left it lacking experience in international negotiations, which will hamper it in trade talks and may lead to “a very hard Brexit”, Norway’s prime minister has said.
Erna Solberg, speaking to Reuters at a meeting of Bavaria’s centre-right CSU party in Germany, said that the UK worked slowly in discussions due to a lack of recent experience of entering talks alone. “We do feel that sometimes when we are discussing with Britain, that their speed is limited by the fact that it is such a long time since they have negotiated,” she said.
Solberg said she hoped the UK would be able to negotiate an agreement that kept it close to the EU, but it would not be easy. “I fear a very hard Brexit, but I hope we will find a better solution.”
The remarks reinforce those made by Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned as Britain’s EU ambassador this week.
Besides attacking “muddled thinking” and “ill-founded arguments” in the UK’s approach to Brexit, Rogers warned in his resignation email of the lack of negotiating experience in the British civil service compared with the EU institutions.
“Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the [European] commission or in the council,” he wrote.
“Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen ... Increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral, that we strike.”
Jonathan Marland, a former trade envoy for David Cameron who chairs the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, also said he did not think Whitehall had the skills to conduct successful Brexit talks.
“My fear is that Whitehall as a whole has really not got the skill set to deliver a really hard-nosed negotiation,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “And I think we have really got to up-skill in that area to do it.”
The European commission handles trade and many other negotiations on behalf of the EU’s 28 member states. Some reports have suggested that when Britain, which joined the the bloc in 1973, voted to leave it had no trade negotiators of its own.
Oliver Letwin, the former head of the government’s EU unit, said in July that all the civil service’s British trade negotiators were employed by the EU. The commission employs around 600 specialists in international trade.
Theresa May has said she plans to trigger article 50 and begin the exit process by the end of March.
The government has said it thinks Britain should be able to negotiate new trade arrangements with the EU within the two-year article 50 process, but many experts believe this is unrealistic and the commission has insisted it wants to sort out Brexit before embarking on trade talks.
Norway is not part of the EU but contributes to the bloc’s budget in exchange for membership of the single market, for which it is also obliged to accept the EU’s fundamental principles, including free movement.
Some in government, such as the chancellor, Philip Hammond, are arguing in favour of a soft Brexit: leaving the UK inside the single market, possibly in a Norway-style relationship with the EU, to minimise the economic downside of leaving.
Others, however, are pushing for a hard Brexit that would take Britain out of the single market and the customs union, and are insisting Britain should walk away from negotiations if the EU is not prepared to give ground on issues such as freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European court of justice.
Solberg told Reuters she thought it would be difficult for the UK to accept the EU’s four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – without having a vote on the council, which is made up of the heads of state or government of its members.
But she added she hoped “we will find a solution that leaves Britain as a partner in a lot of the European activities that we need them to be a partner in”.
This article was written by Jon Henley European affairs correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 5th January 2017 12.47 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010