20 August 2019

As the government announces plans to pull its diplomats out of all non-essential EU meetings, Georgina Wright argues that the UK should make the most of being part of EU institutions – from knowing what new policy is on the agenda to who is working on it – while it still can.

Steve Barclay, the UK’s Secretary of State for leaving the EU, has announced that from 1 September UK ministers and officials will only participate in “those EU meetings where the UK has significant national interests involved”. His reasons are two-fold. First, it sends a strong political message that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October. Second, the less time the UK spends discussing EU issues, the more time it has to focus on the UK’s future relationship with the EU and countries around the world. But this decision is short-sighted. Instead of being beneficial to the UK’s future, it could impact negatively on its interests long-term. 

The UK would lose insider knowledge which could be useful later in the Brexit negotiations 

As a member state, the UK has a seat around the EU table, a say over EU policy and – critically – a vote. In practice, diplomats in Brussels – or those travelling for the day from London – will know what EU policies are on the agenda, who in the EU institutions (Commission, Parliament and the Council) is working on them and, crucially, how different EU countries are planning to vote. This insider-knowledge is vital currency in Brussels as it allows EU countries (particularly big ones) to build coalitions with like-minded countries or offer them support in one forum in exchange for votes in another. 

It is knowledge which the UK should not readily discard. Understanding how different EU countries position themselves on trade and security, for example, could come in handy when the UK is negotiating its future agreement with the EU. This partly explains why Theresa May increased resources in Brussels and across EU capitals over the last year.  

Being part of EU discussions is particularly important if the UK leaves with no deal 

EU decisions will also continue to affect the UK, at least in short-term. If British businesses want to continue exporting to the EU, for example, they are going to have to comply with EU rules and standards – and some of these rules could change between now and the 31 October.

Barclay has made clear that the UK would continue to participate in those discussions that affect the UK’s national interest, but the UK stands a greater chance of influencing and responding to decisions which come into play after 31 October if it is involved in as many discussions as possible over the coming weeks. 

Building relations with the incoming European Commission will be important 

A seat at the EU table allows British diplomats to build strong relations with Brussels-based experts and officials. Once the UK is outside of the EU, it will be harder for British diplomats to get those in the room to tell them what it is being discussed. Bringing an abrupt end to that access won't make relationship-building any easier. 

And it will be even harder to gather information when there is a different set of people gathered around the EU table. New EU Commissioners and their teams are due to start on 1 November: knowing who occupies those top jobs, and cementing those relationships before they begin their new positions, could be particularly valuable when negotiations with the EU begin. It will be much more complicated for British diplomats to keep on top of the many changes to staff, departments and the EU’s phone book planned for November if they are absent from most EU meetings in the run-up to the scheduled Brexit day. Much of this information will be shared in advance over a coffee, and will only become public knowledge once the new Commission is in place. 

Sitting around the EU table is relevant to the UK’s wider interests 

Knowing what its closest neighbours are thinking, and how the EU is evolving, is relevant to UK interest regardless of the Brexit outcome. Taking part in EU meetings does not prevent the UK from holding discussions about its future with the EU or other countries around the world; if anything, as a member state the UK can trade information and use these opportunities to update other countries on internal EU developments. 

Understanding EU thinking, and building key EU relationships, is about more than strengthening the UK's hand in Brussels – such information can also help the UK on a global stage. Participating in only vital meetings will only ever give the UK half of the story at a time when it would be wise to be across every page.