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Dozens Of Former British Diplomats Urge For Delay In Brexit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we're going to stay in the U.K. for this next conversation and turn to a letter written by more than 40 former British diplomats written to Prime Minister Theresa May. The letter warns that Brexit has turned into a national crisis and urges her to delay pulling out of the European Union. Lord Peter Ricketts is among those who signed. He is former national security adviser for the U.K. government, also former ambassador to France. Lord Ricketts, good to have you with us.

PETER RICKETTS: Good to be with you on NPR.

KELLY: Lay out for me briefly the argument that you and dozens of other senior diplomats are making in this letter.

RICKETTS: We've become increasingly concerned that we are approaching this critical moment for the U.K. - leaving the EU, we've been a member for 40 years - and there are no good preparations made for it. There is a draft of a deal between Britain and the EU, but no parliamentary majority for it, and increasing signs that if we were to crash out without a deal, there would be all sorts of damage to the British economy, to people's lives and to our security.

KELLY: And just in terms of timing, there's still five weeks and an odd number of days left. You don't think that's enough time?

RICKETTS: No. I mean, it's an incredibly short time. We've been doing this now for almost two years, and there is still no sign of a parliamentary majority or for a set of changes to the deal that might command that majority.

KELLY: You must still know many, many people within the government. Do you believe that a delay to Brexit at this point is seriously under consideration?

RICKETTS: A delay is seriously under consideration in Parliament. Indeed, there is a cross-party group of members of Parliament who are pushing for that now and may well be able to secure majorities in Parliament.

KELLY: What about at Downing Street, Prime Minister May's office?

RICKETTS: Well, in Downing Street, they are totally focused on trying to find a way of tweaking this deal, amending this deal so that it finds a majority. And I think, probably in the civil service, they're in the familiar position that the leadership are completely concentrated on plan A, don't want to think about plan B. And yet the civil service has a responsibility to think about plan B as well, which would mean a delay of some months to allow time for a compromise to emerge or, if necessary, to prepare better for a no-deal departure. I think if we ask the Europeans for a delay, I think they would agree.

KELLY: You've had signals from Brussels that that would, in fact, be the case.

RICKETTS: Well, yes, and from other capitals as well. I don't think anybody relishes the idea that there will be a brutal abrupt departure in the next five weeks. And although it would be inconvenient to Europe because it has European parliamentary elections and things coming up this spring, I think people would prefer a delay and more time to the alternative.

KELLY: What do you want Americans listening to know about what is happening in your country right now?

RICKETTS: I think listeners need to understand that Britain's departure from the EU isn't just a technical thing. It's a seismic upheaval in Britain's foreign policy and international relations. That isn't going to impact, in my view, on the crucial relationship with the United States, but it is going to affect Britain's place and role in the world.

KELLY: And may I ask you personally, as someone who's served your country for many years, how worried are you?

RICKETTS: I'm very worried that Brexit is going to both make us weaker economically and diminish our international influence. And I think Britain has been able to play quite a important part in designing and then implementing this set of international rules that has allowed so many countries to become prosperous in the last 60 or 70 years. And I think we'll be less able to play that in a world that seems more and more unsettled as a result of this abrupt, rather brutal departure from the club that we've belonged to since 1973.

KELLY: Retired British diplomat Peter Ricketts. Lord Ricketts, thank you.

RICKETTS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.