Exclusive Insight: Brexit interview with Bruges Group Director, Robert Oulds

On Saturday November 4th, leading political think-tank, the Bruges Group held a major conference “Deal or No Deal” in central London. The conference examined key policy decisions and prospects for the United Kingdom’s (UK) future outside of the European Union (EU).

The Bruges Group’s Founder President was the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and since inception in 1989 it has been at the forefront of UK / EU policy debate. Panellists included several members of the British and European Parliaments, from the Labour Party, Kate Hoey MP, from the Conservative Party, Andrew Rosindell MP and Bill Cash MP, and from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Gerard Batten MEP. They were joined by leading academics and industry experts including Professor David Myddleton and Chief Economist from the Institute of Economic Affairs, Julian Jessop. Attending as an ‘observer’ was the newly elected leader of UKIP, Henry Bolton.

To further explore key debate points, I spoke to the Director of the Bruges Group, Robert Oulds. Robert is regularly featured in the British press, and in addition to his work in politics and international affairs, is a military historian and author. His books include “Montgomery and the First War on Terror” and “Knife Edge, Montgomery and the Battle of the Bulge.” We discussed the prevailing political climate, and the possible economic and security implications of Brexit.

Since the Brexit Referendum

[Steve Nimmons]: Robert, the conference has been extremely lively and well attended. There is a palpable sense of frustration at the clarity and pace of delivery of the UK government’s Brexit ‘strategy’. How do you feel the Brexit process has been generally managed since the vote in June 2016? For instance, should then Prime Minister David Cameron, have acted more incisively? Do you feel Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy been compromised by (as some argue) a misjudged general election campaign and disunity in Cabinet?

[Robert Oulds]: “David Cameron led the remain campaign. He promised and made clear that the very next day after the referendum he would trigger Article 50. This should have led to immediate withdrawal discussions with the EU. This was clearly laid out in the referendum legislation. When it came to the day after the referendum, Cameron abdicated his responsible. He stood down as Prime Minister leaving crucial work undone, to his successor Theresa May. She decided not to trigger Article 50 until March 2017. This gap ceded strategic initiative to the EU. David Cameron’s preparation for the possibility of exit was wholly unsatisfactory.

No such preparations were made during the referendum campaign. This is most unusual as (for example) during a general election, the Civil Service will go through every aspect of each party’s manifesto to ensure they are prepared for all eventualities. They did not do that in the referendum because they were banned from doing so. David Cameron wanted to avoid any public perception that the vote might go against the remain campaign. These various circumstances created a vacuum, and created space for the EU to form a detailed negotiating strategy. The missed opportunity to trigger Article 50 quickly, squandered Britain’s opportunity to seize ‘first mover advantage’. Theresa May has subsequently been on the back foot and has made concession after concession to the EU. Even now we are not negotiating on the substantive points with heads of state. Instead we are debating a financial settlement that has little or no legal basis with a ‘go-between’, Michel Barnier. Britain’s trump cards, security, intelligence and our role in balancing Russian power have been poorly played.”

Resistance and Reversal

[Steve Nimmons]: There has been spirited resistance to Brexit. Consider for example the campaign led by Gina Miller. Leading politicians, economists, business people and sections of the media are obviously highly motivated, perhaps even optimistic about the possibility of reversing the Brexit decision. Implementation or transition periods arguably muddy the water, blurring the lines between ‘in and out’. Do the various counter-Brexit campaigns give you cause for concern, or do you feel there is growing acceptance of and support for the referendum result?  

[Robert Oulds]: “A vacuum was created by hesitation to trigger Article 50. This created inertia in the Civil Service, internal political division and resulted in a poor approach to negotiations. The EU no doubt thinks that the vote is reversible. There are precedents. The Dutch and French voted no to the EU constitution. When the Irish voted on Nice and Lisbon treaties, a ‘wrong result election’ was simply re-run. The Dutch had to vote again on Maastricht, given opt outs on justice and home affairs measures. When the Dutch voted against the EU association agreement with Ukraine this was ignored. The EU has consistently ignored referendum results.

Gina Miller’s campaigns have been effective, but not perhaps in the way she and her supporters intended. They have spent large sums of money, perhaps unwisely and ineffectively. The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to give the government power to trigger Article 50. This was soon after ratified by the House of Lords. The fact that Britain is leaving the EU has been constitutionally settled and clearly voted on by both Houses of Parliament. The public wants the government to get on with taking us out of the EU. According to opinion polls, over two thirds now want us to leave the EU. About 20% want the UK to remain. Many who initially voted to remain in the April 2016 referendum now want the government to expedite our exit. Very strong, well-funded campaigns trying to scupper Brexit have consistently failed. Paradoxically, they have created more support for the leave campaign and underpinned the necessity for decisive government leadership and action. The media is trying to create scare stories and is overstating the effectiveness and relevance of these remain campaigns. Their time is past, and they have lost.”

Deal or No Deal – the Economics of Brexit

[Steve Nimmons]: The theme of the conference is “Deal or No Deal.” What kind of deal do you think would be a win-win for both the UK and the EU? Is the concept of ‘No Deal’ a red herring, or should we be genuinely worried about this as a possible outcome?

[Robert Oulds]: “By ‘No Deal’ people often cite a return to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on trade. The UK is signatory to a host of international agreements and trade facilitation arrangements making it easy for trade to cross international borders. There are bodies more senior to the EU, for example from the United Nations, the Economic Commission for Europe. It is wrong to think that the choice of ‘deal or no deal’ as binary. The idea of hard Brexit is a misnomer. Some sort of ubiquitous, monolithic comprehensive trade agreement is also the wrong approach. We need sector by sector agreements, in the same vein as trade agreements between the EU, China, America, Australia and others. This wrestles control and dominance away from EU central. The UK government however has been slow to stand up to the EU and seems to be agreeing with EU edicts no matter how unpalatable. Keeping immigration (for EU nationals) essentially unchanged through any transitional period and keeping the role for the European Court of Justice are antithetical to regaining control of sovereignty. This is not what we voted for and allowing the EU to set the terms of the withdrawal agreement and control the transitional phase is neglectful and foolhardy.”

Security, Intelligence and Northern Ireland

[Steve Nimmons]: Brexit raises some genuinely challenging issues, not least the question of the Northern Ireland border, pan-European security including counter-terrorism and combating organised crime and the future role of the UK in transnational policing (e.g. Europol, and access to Schengen II information systems). Certain EU accession countries (particularly those transitioning from Communism after the end of the Cold War) arguably benefited from policing reforms, improved governance and human rights standards. How do you feel Britain can best address security concerns of Brexit and at the same time continue to support maturing democracies?   

[Robert Oulds]: “On the question of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this goes back to 1989-1991. EU accession through 2004 and 2007 happened significantly later. The contention that accession somehow aided a transition from Communism is false. This is a well-worn narrative, but there is little or nothing to substantiate its claims.

The Northern Ireland question can be dated back to the 1922 Partition of Ireland. The free travel area has been in place ever since. If a hard border is put in place, then the EU will be responsible for so doing. It is not the policy of British government to install physical border controls (beyond what is necessary in terms of cameras and infrastructure for electronic reporting of trade). The debate about border security and what might be imposed from Brussels might well provide an opportunity for the Irish government and people to stand up for their own national self-interest.”

Beyond EU Protectionism

[Steve Nimmons]: The potential economic impact of Brexit is contested, with highly contrasting dystopian and utopian viewpoints. How do we ‘cut through’ the hyperbole and really get to an understanding of the economic risks and opportunities? How does a post-Brexit Britain avoid the mousetrap of protectionism?

[Robert Oulds]: “This is in fact very straight forward. Britain is resolutely in favour of free trade. We are ideologically opposed to protectionism and feel that the protectionist policy of the EU is highly constraining. We therefore avoid protectionism by coming out of the EU. With free trade that is truly pan-global and extricating ourselves from the EU’s protectionist dogma, we create conditions for both economic revival and sovereign control.”

Trade deals and the Anglosphere

[Steve Nimmons]: It seems to me that Britain is in the process of ‘reimagining’ its position in the world order. The emerging power houses in Brazil, Russia, India and China being well-known challengers to economic hegemony. What key relationships do you feel Britain needs to foster to thrive ‘post-Brexit’. For example, as Andrew Rosindell MP contends, will we see renewed trade relations across Commonwealth partners, a resurgent Anglosphere?  

[Robert Oulds]: “There is a vast range of opportunities and we are only scratching the surface because trade policy has been EU dominated since 1973. Moving forward with China’s investment infrastructure, better rail links and a resurgent silk road presents opportunities. The BRIC countries are not the only emerging markets and we must also look to the Commonwealth and Anglosphere in particular as you mention. Trade with the EU has been inflated by the ‘Antwerp and Rotterdam effects’. Because of reshipping arrangements, goods from the UK routed through these ports are counted as UK exports to Belgium or the Netherlands. EU trade figures are massively overblown because of this activity. The UK is also a very strong country in the services and financial sectors. The EU very rarely opens up the services market and the UK outside the EU will have extensive opportunity in these areas. The EU is protectionist in terms of agricultural produce markets and again we see broad scope for trade development with numerous emerging economies.”

Brexit and the Future

[Steve Nimmons]: Finally Robert, when Britain leaves the EU in 2019, the political landscape will change significantly. This brings into question the long-term future of political parties such as UKIP. What key changes do you think we will see over the next 2 years and in this context how do you envisage the evolving role of the Bruges Group?  

[Robert Oulds]: “It seems premature to make sweeping predictions at this stage. There is still a lot to be done in the exit negotiations and the government needs to be scrutinised and ‘policed’ at each step. We are concerned about the EU’s ambition in foreign policy and defence and the future erosion of NATO. An EU that wants to have its own foreign policy backed up with its own military is concerning, given its lack of democratic mandate. Fundamentally our role is to fight for what people voted for. That is taking back control of our borders, courts, trade, policy and law making. Elements of the government still have a ‘Remain’ mindset and this needs to be robustly challenged. We are concerned about concessions still being made to the EU and failing legislation and schemes such as the European Arrest Warrant and seemingly ineffective management of the issue of returning Jihadists from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and particularly Syria. Those conflict zones are often termed ‘failed states’. We view the EU as a ‘failed meta-state’. Extricating ourselves from the mess of that failed meta-state is our core purpose.”


Brexit is a seismic political phenomena. At times it threatens to spark a metaphorical political civil war. Debate can be heated, vitriolic and hyperbolic. Too often, debate is loaded with invective and spin. Examining the ‘ins and outs’ of the various arguments must be done critically and with care. Apocalyptic predictions about the economic effects of Brexit seem unfounded. Indeed, economists such as Professor David Myddleton and Julian Jessop argue its benefits. Government inaction and weak leadership do seem to have caused genuine public disquiet. A key risk in ongoing Brexit negotiations is over focusing on satiating the desires of Michel Barnier, while underdelivering on control issues so central to the aspirations of the ‘Leave’ voters.


1 Steve Nimmons is a freelance journalist, Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, Linnean Society and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He writes about technology, innovation, defence and public affairs.

2 Robert Oulds is Director of the Bruges Group. “The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.”

About the Author
Steve Nimmons is a technology entrepreneur and writer with interests in Innovation and Digital Transformation in Defence, Security and Policing.
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