Britain’s ex-top civil servant Lord O’Donnell (pictured) was today under withering attack for saying the idea of Britain quitting the EU is ‘scary’. His warnings were dismissed as ‘absurd’
Britain’s ex-top civil servant was today under withering attack for saying the idea of Britain quitting the EU is ‘scary’.
In the latest Establishment intervention on behalf of the Remain camp, he said we would then be left at the mercy of other member states in requesting extra time to secure trade deals.
Lord O’Donnell, who was elevated to the Lords under Mr Cameron, said this prospect was a ‘bit scary’.
His remarks triggered anger from senior ministers and Leave campaigners – who dismissed his argument as ‘absurd’ and ‘doing Britain down’.
They said that the two year deadline was artificial and, in any event, other EU members states would be desperate to strike a deal giving them access to the UK exports market.
Conservative peer and former chancellor Lord Lamont said: ‘My former colleague Gus O’Donnell seems to be arguing not that the EU is good or bad but it is impossible to get out of it.
‘It’s like a lobster pot, we’re trapped for 10 years at least. This is absurd. The EU needs a deal as much as we do. If it took longer than two years to negotiate a trade deal that would be as much to the disadvantage of the EU as to the UK.
‘If more time was needed the EU would have every incentive to strike a deal with its largest trading partner, the UK.’
The latest row of the referendum campaign centres on the mechanism for Britain leaving the EU if the country votes Out on June 23.
Under the process set out in the Lisbon Treaty, a nation has two years to complete a deal once it formally declares that it will withdraw from the EU.
Lord O’Donnell said he was in the camp that ‘doesn’t think we can do it in two years’ as it will be a ‘very complex process’.
He said: ‘We have to negotiate our entry to the single market, we have to negotiate our future relationship with the EU and then we have to negotiate our trade treaties with all other countries. So there’s a lot to be done.’
Lord Gus O’Donnell also warned that the political backdrop of any exit negotiations will work ‘completely the wrong way for us’ considering the elections that German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and French President Francois Hollande (right) face next year
The ex-mandarin, who is considered one of the architects of the 2010 Tory/Lib Dem Coalition, added: ‘Obviously at the end of two years anything we haven’t negotiated has to be extended by unanimity of a vote excluding us so that’s a bit scary.’
He BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that the Article 50 rules on the process were ‘not written in a neutral way’ and warned it would be a ‘rather biased playing field’.
If the UK failed to get a deal within two years, the country would revert to World Trade Organization rules, which would include significant tariffs.
He stopped short of directly declaring for the Remain camp – but critics pointed out this arguments were almost identical to the Government’s.
The Leave campaign flatly rejects the idea that Article 50 would have to be triggered immediately after the referendum. Its experts insist there is no legal requirement to do so and a series of informal negotiations could take place first.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab said Lord O’Donnell was not a diplomat or an international lawyer. He added: ‘I used to negotiate treaties and I can tell you that if we voted to leave we could do so and negotiate an exit agreement.’
Lord Gus O’Donnell – who served as Cabinet Secretary to David Cameron – argued the UK would be unable to negotiate its exit from the Brussels club within the two years allowed by EU treaties.
He said the UK was the fifth biggest economy in the world and a key export market for the EU, adding: ‘Of course we’d strike a new deal, and relatively soon, with transitional arrangements if necessary.’
Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of Vote Leave, said: ‘There’s a European free trade zone that stretches from Iceland to Turkey – the idea that the UK would not be part of this after we vote leave is unrealistic.
‘It is ridiculous to argue that we should not Vote Leave because it is too difficult for diplomats to negotiate. Lord O’Donnell’s comments sum up the Civil Service’s decades old defeatist attitude which has frustrated any attempts to get reform in the EU.
‘We are a great country so we will get a good deal when we Vote Leave, it is in everyone’s best interests. The in campaign should stop doing Britain down.’
Cabinet minister Chris Grayling said of Lord O’Donnell’s claims: ‘This is just not true. The example that is always cited is Canada and the fact it has taken seven years to negotiate a deal with the EU.
‘The difference is that Canada needs to agree common standards with the EU. We already meet those common standards.’