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Who will David Davis and Liam Fox talk to?

by Hugo Dixon | 26.07.2016

The cabinet’s top two Brexit negotiators are going to struggle to get into any meaningful conversations. David Davis, who is supposed to be agreeing our Brexit terms, doesn’t have any counterparts in the rest of the EU. Meanwhile, Liam Fox, our new international trade tsar, is unlikely to be able to get into substantive trade talks with countries outside the bloc for a few years yet.

Look, first, at Davis’ role. In the EU, leaders talk directly to leaders. Their “sherpas”, senior civil servants working directly for leaders, chat among themselves. Meanwhile, the EU ambassadors meet with their counterparts, other EU envoys.

Davis is none of these three things. So he’s unlikely to get meetings with the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel. Other countries’ leaders will either speak directly to Theresa May or ask their sherpas to talk to her civil servants.

Our EU ambassador, Ivan Rogers, does now report to Davis. But it would surely not be in accordance with the latter’s status to spend his time talking to other ambassadors. And it’s not obvious that he could even chat to the German, French and Italian foreign ministers. They’ll think their job is to speak to our foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

Incidentally, May doesn’t yet have a sherpa because the previous incumbent, Tom Scholar, is now running the Treasury and the mandarin intended for the role, Oliver Robbins, is now running Davis’ department. Even if the prime minister thinks she doesn’t need somebody doing the job, she will probably change her mind. In that case, Davis may find himself even more marginal.

Of course, the Brexit secretary will eventually be able to talk to the European Commission. But Jean-Claude Juncker and his team are likely to stick to the hard line that there will be “no negotiation until notification” – in other words, until we have triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty formally opening divorce proceedings. That won’t be until next year. Meanwhile, Davis will struggle to get involved in the behind-the-scenes informal negotiations that are likely to take place in national capitals in coming months.

Now look at Fox. He can certainly travel around the world having preliminary conversations about new trade deals. But these talks are unlikely to get anywhere until we have figured out our new trade arrangement with the EU – a process that could take many years.

After all, as InFacts has already pointed out, commitments in different trade deals often interact or contradict each other. That’s presumably why US Trade Representative, Michael Froman, told Fox yesterday that America wouldn’t negotiate a deal with Britain until our relationship with the EU was clearer.

Edited by Rachel Franklin