Brexit Will Test U.K. Civil Service to the ‘Limit,’ Study Says

  • Pressure will mount on officials after U.K. triggers divorce
  • Civil service must juggle everyday policy with Brexit strategy

U.K.'s May Says Brexit Bill Becomes Law in 'Coming Days'

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Brexit negotiations will test U.K. civil servants to the maximum, as officials juggle unprecedented demands with the day-to-day running of the country, researchers said Monday.

Pressure on the service, already at its smallest since World War II after years of austerity, will intensify once Prime Minister Theresa May triggers formal talks with the European Union, according to Jill Rutter, a program director at the Institute for Government.

“The government’s focus will quickly shift from preparing for talks to managing negotiations and laying the foundations for life outside the EU,” Rutter said in an emailed statement. “With limited time and capacity, the pressure on ministers and the civil servants supporting them will increase. Successfully delivering Brexit in this context will require agility, leadership and realism.”

What Comes Next as May Prepares to Trigger Brexit: QuickTake Q&A

The U.K. faces the daunting task of trying to negotiate an exit agreement with the EU while crafting a deal to govern its future relationship with the bloc. The government also intends to write all EU rules into domestic legislation through a Great Repeal Bill. At the same time, May will want to demonstrate there is more to her government than managing Brexit by pushing through pledges made by the Conservatives at the 2015 general election.

May has pledged to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March, serving formal notification that Britain is leaving the EU.

“The pressure of Brexit will be felt right across government and delivering it alongside existing commitments will test capacity to the limit,” said Anand Menon, a professor at King’s College London and director of its The U.K. in a Changing Europe program, which helped produce the report. “The civil service has many of the core skills required to do the task but effectively managing competing priorities and limited resources will require strong leadership.”

The study also said:

  • Government departments will need a steer from government as to what policies they can delay or cut in order to allow for Brexit preparation and coordination.
  • The negotiations will require a “rapid and dramatic upskilling of government capability and capacity, particularly to match the very substantial expertise the EU negotiators will have at their disposal.”
  • The government must assume that if it fails to secure a deal, EU treaties will cease to apply and it will need to be able to assume competencies previously covered by the EU.
  • There is no guarantee the EU will agree to a transitional phase after the talks.
  • Ministers will need to ensure computer systems are in place for tasks such as registering EU immigrants and enforcing trade tariffs.
  • While the government will want to change inherited EU legislation after the Great Repeal Bill has passed, it will need “careful prioritization” because doing so through primary and secondary legislation “will be a major drain on legislative resources.”
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