Former leading diplomat warns of Brexit dangers – for the EU as well as for Britain

Speaking on the eve of Britain triggering Article 50, retired senior diplomat and Old Elizabethan Sir Leslie Fielding has warned that Britain lacks the expertise necessary to conduct the detailed Brexit trade negotiations that are about to start.

Interviewed by BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today programme, Old Elizabethan Sir Leslie (OE 1943-1951) not only reminisced about his experiences in 1973 when he was one of the first British diplomats to be sent to Brussels as Britain joined the European Community, but also spoke of his feelings and fears now that Britain is leaving.

“To a degree I feel terribly upset – it gives me a deep sadness, not only because of the effect on the unity of the UK and on Brits generally, but also because I think it could be in part such a shock to the EU that might result in something much bigger, more dangerous happening.”

""Sir Leslie said the negotiations will be “hellishly complex”. Prior to going to Brussels, he had been involved in international negotiations, but not trade negotiations. “I found I was joining a team there who were absolute aces… it was jumping in the deep end and I found it tricky.

“It’s commonly said that we don’t really have many people in Whitehall now who these days know very much about these things, because it’s all been done by the Commission. It’s tricky and it’s a particular brand of knowledge which you don’t find easily on call.”

He said his friend, Pascal Lamy, former European Commissioner for Trade and former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, had warned him that the negotiations could take five to 12 years.

Sir Leslie graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, with a First in History; he studied Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and was a Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Following his graduation in 1956, Sir Leslie was placed second in the open competition for the Foreign (now Diplomatic) Service. His career as a diplomat later took him to Tehran, Singapore, Cambodia, Paris, Brussels and Japan.

""He joined the External Relations Directorate-General of the European Commission in 1973 as the Director with special responsibility for Europe's relations with the US and the Commonwealth. He subsequently became EC Ambassador in Tokyo for five years, returning to Brussels as Director-General of External Relations from 1982 to 1987.  He was knighted in 1988.

Asked about his first day in Brussels in 1973, he told the Today programme: “I remember it vividly; I remember turning up and finding I had an office but without any telephone or blotting paper, and it was a struggle to get oneself organised. But that was understandable – after all, I was a newcomer, a dreaded Englishman, thought to be unable to speak any other language than English.”

In fact, Sir Leslie was fluent in French and had gone to Brussels with clear instructions to use it. “I was told by [Prime Minister] Ted Heath to speak French all the time: he didn’t want any linguistic chauvinism. Ted, of course, didn’t speak a word of any language other than English.

""“I spoke French all the time and it was ok – the problem was it was 24 hours a day…The French language demands facial exertions different from those required when one mutters away in English with a clipped manner…my throat, cheeks and lips began to rebel after 8-10 hours of that!

A career diplomat, he brought with him many years of experience of international relations. Although he felt the EC was in some senses a “well-oiled machine”, he added: “I thought on the whole that our methods were better than theirs…As a Brit, I had better man-management skills than most of them.”

He was particularly struck by the fact that they could not communicate confidentially with the EC’s external offices around the world: the only cipher machine was left unused because nobody knew how to use it and there was no diplomatic bag service; instead, communications had to be sent by the ordinary post. “Things like that were, for a Foreign Office man, rather strange.”

""During his time in Brussels, he was treated “cordially, but with a certain reserve”, he recalled. “They wondered whether I was perfidious Albion and one of Mrs Thatcher’s spies.”

“Looking back, I would say it was absolutely worthwhile,” he added.

After retiring from the diplomatic service he returned to England, where he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex from 1987 to 92. He has been a Lay Reader in the Church of England for more than 30 years. In recent years he has been busy writing and publishing – mostly on international relations, but has also produced a novel and a screenplay. Sir Leslie is married to the eminent mediaeval historian Sally Harvey and they have two children, Emma and Leo.