Former top civil servant O’Donnell has a viable vision of Remain

Former Remain supporters of the moderate tendency have gained a powerful ally in Gus O’Donnell the former UK Cabinet Secretary. The role is recognised as the fountainhead  of Making It Happen in government – or explaining to ministers why it can’t happen. It’s all the more important at such a politically volatile time.  In an interview with the Times (£) he gives his thoughts on referendums and the massive difficulties of disengaging from the EU ( “years and years”). He is happy to speculate that full withdrawal may never happen.    While O’Donnell is now a free agent, it goes against the usual instincts of a cabinet secretary to speak out so boldly when the job itself is to carry out the wishes of the government. He doesn’t quite breach that convention, but he comes close.

( Gus O’Donnell) is roving the corridors of the newly formed Department for Exiting the European Union for a Radio Four programme called Brexit: The Leavocrats (to be broadcast on Wednesday) about how his former colleagues are getting on in the civil service’s “greatest challenge since World War Two”.

“I do have an idealistic outcome: which is that the EU, confronted with all the problems that it has got at the moment, changes quite radically.” In this Utopian vision, some countries in the eurozone would in effect form a superstate to make the euro “sustainable”. And then the other EU members, “a broader group”, would become “much more loosely aligned” — more in the Anglo-Saxon spirit. And this is what may have the Leavers choking on their English frizzante: “Lots of people will say, ‘We’ve had the referendum, we’ve decided to go out, so that’s it, it’s all over.’ But it very much depends what happens to public opinion and whether the EU changes before then. It might be that the broader, more loosely aligned group is something that the UK is happy being a member of.”

Lord O’Donnell predicts that the administrative challenge of separating from EU law will mean a slow pace of change. “While we can leave relatively quickly, what leaving means is a huge administrative and legislative change because all of those rules and laws and directives that have been implemented over this last 40 years. My instinct is we will almost certainly stick with them and say ‘OK, we’ll keep them for now’, so you can leave with everything in place.”

Although he acknowledges “that’s not what people voted for” he says that parliament will need to “go through them all to try to sort out which ones we want to keep and which ones we want to get rid of and which ones we might want to augment. And that process is a process that will take parliament years and years and years.”

Brexit was plainly not Lord O’Donnell’s preferred outcome. Does he think it was appropriate for the British public to adjudicate on something as important as leaving the EU? “I am really in favour of representative democracy,” he says, “so I think you vote for parties, and then let the party get on with it. In general I am not a big fan of referenda.” One problem was the communication to the public of “facts” on both sides. He says there were “ridiculous claims”, both sides “bandying about so-called statistics that just aren’t true”.

Very thorny questions arise: if you want to stay in a more flexible outer layer of Europe why go through the agony of quitting in the first place?

Do you believe that  pressure from Brexit negotiations combined with the results of elections on the continent next year will make O’Donnell’s vision of a two- stage Europe a reality?

Will the radical Brexiteers apparently in charge of the process accept this vision as at least a possible outcome? All their  statements so far suggest not.  Something will have to give.

Is Angela Merkel heading for a looser or a tighter Europe? (FT£)  The signals are mixed.

Ms Merkel, who has scheduled meetings with 15 EU leaders across five countries, is attempting to find common ground between member states that have erupted in disagreement since the UK’s vote for Brexit, ahead of a critical summit in Bratislava on September 16 to discuss the future direction of the union.

“Brexit is not just any event. It is a deep break in the EU’s history of integration, and so it is important to find a careful answer,” said Ms Merkel in Warsaw. “We must face the consequences [of Brexit] and consider the future of the EU. Citizens will only accept the EU if it makes it possible for them to prosper.”

A British  vision of ” a reformed Europe” is well set out by the constitution authority Vernon Bogdanor

  The British contribution to Europe was always to insist that rhetoric is subordinated to reality. Realism is now desperately needed if the European project is to be rescued from the elitist and technocratic establishment which currently dominates it, and which is losing it the support of its people. Perhaps if EU leaders listen to what citizens are saying, it might even be possible to persuade the British public to have second thoughts in a second referendum.

A nice question is lurking for Irish politics. In any two stage Europe of a loose association including the UK and a fiscally integrated core around the euro, where does Ireland best belong?


The “ warning” of the EU Commission to the Irish government against scrapping the Universal Social Charge (USC) and  suspending water charges may be justified or not justified,  but it’s little lectures like this in support of a controversial economic model that UK voters – rightly or wrongly – refuse to accept from such a powerful though unelected body. The objection is as much to the  self confident tone, like an Roman  imperial order, as much as the content.

   ( The Commission)  it warns of a number of risks – most notably the effect of a British exit from the European Union.

The Commission says the uncertainty created puts a greater premium on prudent management of the economy.

It insists the Government must “balance the demands for spending increases and tax cuts against the need to complete the adjustment, address the housing and infrastructure deficits and to prepare for adverse scenarios”…. The Commission says the decisions to decrease personal taxes and to suspend water charges will absorb further resources and “represent an erosion of reforms”.

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