Outrage as former head of Civil Service says quitting EU could take YEARS

Lord O'Donnell and EU and UK flagsGETTY/ PA

Lord O’Donnell warned that the process of breaking ties with Brussels could ‘take a very long time’

Lord O’Donnell, who was Cabinet Secretary to three prime ministers warned that the process of breaking ties with Brussels after a “leave” vote in this summer’s EU referendum could “take a very long time” and lead to years of stability. 

He also raised the prospect of the leaders of other EU countries seeking to punish the UK for leaving the bloc. 

But the former Whitehall mandarin’s intervention in the debate over Britain’s European future triggered an angry reaction from anti-EU campaigners last night. 

Lord O’Donnell spoke out about the potential difficulties of leaving the EU in an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday. 

He declined to say whether he backed or opposed an EU exit while insisting departure would be “a very complex process.” 

It was likely to take longer in practice than the two-year timespan set out in “Article 50” of the EU’s rulebook, the former Civil Service chief said. 

“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,” said Lord O’Donnell. 

Canada took seven years to agree a trade deal with the EU and Greenland took three, he said. 

The crossbench peer acknowledged that David Cameron could be ousted as prime minister in the event of an “out” vote in the referendum on June 23, with Tory MPs possibly looking to replace him with a “tough negotiator”. 

David CameronGETTY

Lord O’Donnell acknowledged that Cameron could be ousted as PM in the event of an ‘out’

All the precedents suggest it’s going to take a very long time

Lord O’Donnel

“Yes they might indeed, the problem about being a tough negotiator in all of this is that even if you are a tough negotiator, all the precedents suggest it’s going to take a very long time. 

“When Canada tried to get a deal with the EU, and they have got most of the way there, it took them seven years.” 

Lord O’Donnell warned that looming elections in European countries could have an impact on British EU exit negotiations. 

He said: “Let’s just imagine the guys on the other side of the table, so you’ve got countries like France and Germany. Both of them next year will be fighting elections, they have anti-EU parties that they’ll be fighting against. 

“Do you think the politics will be such that these countries, these leaders will want us to be seen to be having great successes from leaving. I’m afraid the politics works completely the wrong way for us.” 

He added: “The problem is it’s a very complex process, we have to negotiate our entry to the single market, we have to negotiate our future relationship with the EU and we have to negotiate our trade treaties with all other countries, so there’s a lot to be done.” 

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign group, 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. 

Dominic Raab PA

Dominic Raab disputed Lord O’Donnell’s suggestion that it could take years to negotiate an EU exit

“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.” 

Tory Justice Minister Dominic Raab disputed Lord O’Donnell’s suggestion that it could take years to negotiate an exit from the EU. 

“I don’t think that’s true,” he said. 

The Eurosceptic minister told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I was, as it happens, an international lawyer by training and trade.

“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 following triggering Article 50.” 

Eu and UK flagsGETTY

The peer also raised the prospect of the leaders of other EU countries seeking to punish the UK

He added: “The truth is we have the legal flexibility; the real issue is the political will and the mutual interest and that is very clearly strong. 

“We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, European firms sell us 59 billion more than we sell them. Of course we’d strike a new deal and relatively soon, with transitional arrangements if necessary.” 

Lord O’Donnell warned Article 50 “wasn’t written in a neutral way”. 

He added: “It’s a rather biased playing field we’ll be on because actually if we don’t get a deal then we revert to what’s called World Trade Organisation rules, so tariffs would apply to all of our products and at the end of that two-year period if we haven’t done it, then we would revert to that unless there’s a unanimous agreement the other way.” 

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