British ambassador in Prague gives Brexit assurances to Czechs, sets out London’s negotiating ambitions

Britain launched the process on Wednesday of extracting itself from the European Union and forging a new relationship with its biggest trading partners. Many see the two year negotiating process as being fraught on both sides but the British ambassador to the Czech Republic, Jan Thompson, sought to be upbeat in a wide ranging interview with Radio Prague. She stressed how Britain wants to give guarantees fast to Czech citizens and Czechs doing business with Britain and how the ambitious negotiating deadlines should be met. And she also held out the prospect of ongoing close and friendly relations between London and Prague, perhaps even stronger when both countries were in the EU. Chris Johnstone asked first of all what the broad targets for Britain are in the upcoming separation talks.

Jan Thompson, photo: Ondřej TomšůJan Thompson, photo: Ondřej Tomšů ʺThe main priorities of the British government now are to launch the negotiations as soon as we can, so the clock has effectively started ticking from today, and we have a two year period under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to conclude the arrangements for our departure from the EU taking into account our future relationship with the European Union. So we have that two year period to arrange the terms of our departure and also what the new relationship we will have with the European Union will look like. In the letter that Theresa May wrote today to Donald Tusk, she made clear that we will be looking after leaving the European Union for a really deep and special partnership with the EU; a relationship that would cover trade, so the economic sphere, but also the security area and that will allow us as a non-EU country to have an arrangement, a partnership, with the European Union which is strategic, and which is deeper, wider, and closer than one which any non-member state has with the European Union. And we think that makes sense because we are a big country on the doorstep of the European Union – we are leaving the European Union but we are staying in Europe – and it will make sense for us to cooperate with each other as closely as we can across all of these sectors.

ʺOne of our immediate priorities, since you ask about what will happen next, is that as a first component of our negotiations, or very, very early in the negotiations, we are able to come to an agreement guaranteeing the rights of the 3.0 million EU citizens who currently live in the UK and the 1.0 million British citizens that live in the EU. That will be a top priority early on."

So how soon do you think it might be possible to explain to some Czech student who is thinking of studying in Britain over the next two or three years, or a Czech who is working or has been offered a job and is thinking of moving to Britain, and give them certainty about what kind of future they might have? For the student, for example, they don’t even know whether they will be eligible for grants over the next two or three years...

ʺOne of our immediate priorities… is to come to an agreement guaranteeing the rights of the 3.0 million EU citizens who currently live in the UK and the 1.0 million British citizens that live in the EU."

ʺYou ask about the Czech Republic, for Czechs already living in the United Kingdom we are very keen to guarantee their rights in the negotiations as soon as possible as one of the first items of the negotiation. We wanted to do that already, we would have done it already, but we have to do it on a reciprocal basis so that the rights of the British citizens, students and so on who are already living in the Czech Republic are guaranteed at the same time. We have a duty to our own citizens as well.

ʺIn terms of those who are thinking to come in the future, this is something that will be part of the negotiations and obviously today we are at the very beginning of those negotiations. But what I can say is clear, as far as the British government is concerned it is that we very much welcome the contribution that Czech and other citizens from around the European Union who come to our country to work, to study, to contribute to our economy. They make a huge contribution in terms of the delivery of public services, they support our businesses and we will want to continue to attract talent from around Europe and from the Czech Republic as well. Many of the Czechs who are currently in the UK are professionals, highly regarded, making a big contribution to our economy.

ʺWe will certainly want to continue people to come, but it was a clear message from our referendum last year that the British public wanted to take back control of its own borders and immigration system and under the free movement principle that applies in the European Union it wasn’t possible to do that. Now, we understand that is a principle to which the EU is very clearly attached and that is one of the reasons we are leaving the European Union. But that does not mean we are pulling up the drawbridge, closing the doors, and saying that we do not want people to come in the future; simply, we want to have some control over how many and under what circumstances people come. So I can’t give full clarity, to come back to your question, about what the situation will be in four or five years’ time. That will be something that will be resolved over the course of the negotiations over the course of the next two years. "

Photo: Rareclass via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-NDPhoto: Rareclass via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND In the long term though, it looks fairly inevitable that there will be quotas on EU citizens in Britain?

ʺI don’t know whether there will be specifically quotas on EU citizens. What we have said is that we want to take back control of our borders and our immigration system. So we will be looking to devise a new immigration system. We will be having a public consultation in the UK about the needs of our businesses and the needs of our societies and what kinds of arrangements would be sensible in terms of having people come to the UK from the European Union and from other parts of the world. We will have a look then and see what it will involve and whether it means limits on numbers or the types of skills that we want to attract in and that sort of thing. At the moment I am not in a position to say that because we have not conducted that process. "

Effectively here we are talking about a divorce and perhaps one of the main issues is whether this divorce is going to be amicable or not. Already there are talks about what sort of compensation Britain might have to give back to the European Union, 50 billion to 60 billion euros. Coming back to the priorities, the British priority is to get some sort of trade deal quickly, but maybe the European Union might like to put that back a bit. How do you see the nature of these talks going forward? There is another aspect as well, some people in Europe might not want to see Britain successful in the future because it might encourage other countries to leave...

ʺFirst of all, I would like to say we don’t like to describe it as a divorce. We like to describe it as a new chapter in the relationship, and a different kind of relationship that we will have between the United Kingdom and the European Union after we leave. We don’t think it is in anyone’s interest for the negotiations to be conducted in a negative spirit. Nor do we think it makes any sense for the outcome to be one that is not in the national interest of both the UK and the rest of the European Union. So, for instance, in the area of trade, trade has continued, our businesses have exported to each other, our companies have invested in one another’s countries for 40 plus years without barriers and without difficulties, or increasingly without barriers and tariffs and difficulties. It’s not clear in whose interest it would be to have barriers and erect new barriers and to make that relationship more complex. We know how our supply chains across Europe are integrated for our manufacturers, so to erect new barriers does not seem to make any sense. And I should have thought that if the European Union is an organisation, an institution, that is positive, forward looking, confident about its future; as it should be and as we want it to be; then it should not be looking to punish a country that wants to, for its own reasons, to leave that union. The European Union is our largest export market, our single largest trading partner, and it is in our undoubted national interest that the organisation, the European Union, prospers and is successful.

ʺWe don’t think it is in anyone’s interest for the negotiations to be conducted in a negative spirit."

ʺIn terms of money, you talked about that, and we all know that money can be a difficult issue at times, certainly we will be respecting the importance of coming to a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as an EU member state. We have no problem with that, we are ready to discuss that with the rest of the European Union as part of our withdrawal negotiations.

ʺYou talked also about the trade agreement and the sequencing of this sort of thing, we do think it is important to try and agree the terms of our future partnership with the European Union alongside the terms of our withdrawal. I know there is some debate about that. But why do we think that makes sense? Apart from anything else, we think it makes sense to have some certainty and confidence for our people, for our businesses, for investors, on both sides about what the future will hold. So we know that businesses and investors like to plan in the long term and it makes sense for them to have a sense of the ultimate direction, the ultimate destination that we will be getting to in terms of the future relationship as early as possible. So we want to manage those processes alongside one another within the two year period. We know that is quite ambitious, that’s a lot to agree within a two year period, but we do have one big advantage in that we start from a position where all of our regulatory framework, all of our standards, all of our processes are completely standardized because we have been the UK has been a member of the EU for decades. We start from a position of complete harmonization of our systems. So with good will on all sides, we do think it is possible to come to this agreement and we think that it must be in the interest of all parties to have a separation if you like, I am not going to call it a divorce, which is amicable and which works to the advantage of all sides. "

You talk about two years, most people talk effectively about 18 months for the negotiations to be wrapped because of the time needed to get agreement from various parliaments etc…

Photo: Daniel Diaz Bardillo, Pixabay / CC0 Public DomainPhoto: Daniel Diaz Bardillo, Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain ʺWell, we are fairly optimistic and confident that we should be able to come to an agreement within that two year period under Article 50. There is a provision to extend that period if all parties agree, all sides agree, the European and UK wishes to do so. We don’t think it will be necessary, but there is a provision to do that if everyone wanted. What we do think may be necessary will be some sort of implementation phase after the two year period ends. We don’t want to get to a point where there is suddenly a huge change in systems or approaches which could be damaging for businesses or other people involved in the processes. So we may need a period after the conclusion of the two year period where we gradually phase in some of the new arrangements, a kind of implementation phase to make things go smoothly so that there is not a sudden transition. But let’s see how the two year period goes and whether that will be necessary. "

Part of your job here in Prague is to some extent to keep tabs on what the Czech government is doing and maybe a bit wider, the Visegrad Four group. How do you perceive the Czech attitude to this Brexit process and how helpful, or not, and in what areas do you think they will be helpful?

ʺI talk a lot to the Czech government here, to other parts of the Czech administration, to Czech businesses, to Czech universities, to Czech scientific establishments, and to members of the Czech public. I talk very widely, and I tend to hear a fairly consistent message which is disappointment that the UK is leaving the European Union because within the European Union the UK and Czech Republic have been quite like-minded partners. We have a very similar outlook on a lot of issues within the European Union whether it is on free trade, the deepening of the single market, or nuclear power, or all sort of other areas. We are quite like-minded. So I get a sense of regret and disappointment that we are leaving. Almost across the board I hear a determination that we will remain friends and cooperate as closely as possible. Certainly the message that I always deliver is that we want to retain a very strong bilateral relationship with the Czech Republic after we leave the European Union, potentially have a much deeper and stronger bilateral relationship than when we were part of the European Union and operating within that wider framework.

ʺWe think it makes sense to have some certainty and confidence for our people, for our businesses, for investors, on both sides about what the future will hold."

ʺBut I also hear that the Czech Republic has clear objectives as regards the negotiations on the UK’s departure. Invariably the issues raised at the top of the agenda with me are the need to guarantee the rights and protect the Czech citizens already living in the UK, but also the need to protect the interests of Czech businesses who trade with the UK. For the Czech Republic, the UK is the Czech Republic’s fourth largest export market and the Czech Republic has a large trade surplus with the UK. So, of course, for Czech businesses, for Czech jobs, it makes sense for trade with the UK to continue as freely and as frictionlessly as it possibly can. So, those are the issues that tend to be raised with me at the top of the agenda. I am sure that the attitude that the Czech Republic will take in the negotiations, of course the Czech Republic will have a voice along with all the other EU member states, will be pragmatic. Like the Brits, the Czechs are very pragmatic and I am sure they will put pragmatism at the heart of their negotiating stance, whether that is protecting the rights of their citizens in the UK or defending Czech jobs which are dependent on trade between the UK and Czech Republic."

One last quest question, I would try to get some historical perspective of what happened today…Britain has been a member of the European Community, Common Market, European Union as it became, since 1973, maybe not always an enthusiastic passenger on the train. In you view, where did things go wrong, was it because the European Union developed in a way that the British did not expect, and were there some opportunities missed?

ʺWe want to retain a very strong bilateral relationship with the Czech Republic after we leave the European Union. "

ʺThe UK is, of course, part of Europe but we do have perhaps have a slightly different political and cultural context and backdrop and history to our membership of the European Union than some other countries. For the United Kingdom, I think it has always been a practical and pragmatic proposition to be a member of the European Union, maybe a bit less of an emotional one than it has been for some countries. Certainly, I think it came to the point where the British people felt that they were a little bit disconnected from decision making in the European Union. So perhaps there was a sense that powers had drifted a little bit too far away from member states, national parliaments, towards the institutions based in Brussels and that wasn’t really the vision or the concept for the European project that the British people had or had signed up to."