Life outside the EU will be hostile for the UK, former US ambassador says

  • The U.K. has still not approved a Brexit deal with the EU.
  • It's due to leave the 28-member bloc on March 29.
  • Crucial votes on the course of Brexit are taking place this week.

"Cold and difficult" — It sounds more like the description of life on another planet rather than life outside of the European Union (EU) but that's how one former U.S. diplomat has predicted that the U.K. will find the world once it's left the 28-member bloc.

"The U.K., should it leave on March 29th, will find that the world is a pretty cold and difficult place without the leverage of the EU," Anthony Gardner, a former U.S. Ambassador to the EU appointed by former President Barack Obama, told CNBC Monday.

With just under three weeks until the U.K. is due to leave the EU, both the U.K., Europe and rest of the world are none the wiser as to what the country's future relationship with the continent will look like ahead of a series of votes this week that will determine the course of Brexit.

On Tuesday, U.K. lawmakers will vote on whether to approve or reject (as expected) U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal with the EU. If they reject it, on Wednesday they will then vote on whether to leave the bloc on March 29 with "no deal." If they also reject that scenario (as expected) they will then vote on Thursday on whether to seek a delay to the departure in the hope of securing better withdrawal terms.

The latter is scenario seen as the most likely currently although whether the EU will make any further concessions or amendments to the deal on offer, when it has so far refused to do, remains to be seen.

If the U.K. leaves the EU with a deal there will be a 21-month transition period in which it hopes to negotiate a trade deal with the EU and to replicate up to 40 existing trade deals that the bloc currently has with trading partners around the world. The U.K. can prepare, but not implement, trade deals during the transition period.

So far, it has only signed a handful of "continuity trade agreements" to preserve current trading arrangements during the post-Brexit transition period, however, including one with the U.S., but these are not free trade deals (which it cannot sign as an EU member now and during the transition period).

Lorries arrive at the Port of Dover in Kent, ahead of the debate and vote on the Brexit motion at the House of Commons, London.
Gareth Fuller - PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images
Lorries arrive at the Port of Dover in Kent, ahead of the debate and vote on the Brexit motion at the House of Commons, London.

Commenting on the state of play in Brexit negotiations with just days to go until a departure is due, the former U.S. Ambassador Gardner said that the U.K. government's performance had been woeful.

"It's a mess obviously, but I have to tell you, I think this is a failure of leadership of the highest order," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe." Two years of Brexit negotiations since the departure process under "Article 50" was triggered in March 2017 had been full of "magical thinking," he said.

"At no time has this government explained to the British people that here are the consequences of decisions before you, hence (there's been) magical thinking and two years have been wasted and we're now faced with potentially a very turbulent week."

Gardner, who was U.S. ambassador to the EU from February 2014 to January 2017 during the Obama administration, said businesses were now facing additional uncertainty.

"The EU will, if requested, condition an extension but the question will be 'for what end?' They won't just grant an open-ended extension of more than three months. Do you want an extension to have another vote? Are you going to come up with a new proposal? If the answer's no to both of those things the EU might say 'why would we give you an extension for you to come back (with) ideas that have already been rejected,'?"