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Brexit viewed with incredulity overseas - ambassador


British ambassadors have been sending messages to the Foreign Office describing Brexit as a political shambles that is destroying the UK’s reputation, the serving UK ambassador to South Korea has said.

In the latest sign of Foreign Office dissent at the direction of British foreign policy, Simon Smith said no serious decision-maker or opinion-former in South Korea thinks the UK’s decision to leave the EU is a good idea, and that most South Koreans viewed Brexit with either bemusement or deep and serious incredulity.

The comments are likely to alarm ministers as they seek to persuade their European counterparts that the country is united behind the Conservative plan to take the country of out of the EU in October.

Addressing an audience at the thinktank Chatham House, Smith said he regarded it as his job to tell the Foreign Office what most people in South Korea thought of Brexit, and not to hide from the elephant in the room.

Speaking on the record Smith opened his talk by referring to leaked remarks made by the now retired high commissioner to Singapore, and former UK ambassador to South Korea, Scott Wightman, whose scathing valedictory assessment of Brexit was leaked two weeks ago.

Smith said: “Some of you will have seen my predecessor‘s thoughts on all this, and all I will say on that, is he has not said anything but what quite a number of us have been saying to our government for the last year or so.

“It is my job to tell things as I see it in Korea and, to … more or less quote from a note I wrote last year and sent to London, I have not really met a serious decision-maker or opinion-former in the Republic of Korea that thinks Brexit is a good idea. I have encountered what is characterisable as a spectrum from mild bemusement about Brexit to really quite serious and deep incredulity on the other end of the spectrum.”

Smith’s assessment has just been released on a Chatham House podcast. Wightman is now director of external affairs for the Scottish government.

His leaked remarks were praised by recently retired UK ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, who tweeted: “I would expect most of my former colleagues to share Scott Wightman’s view of Brexit. Behind the scenes it is important for diplomats to challenge the current blind debate.”

Despite his frank reportage of the South Korean view of Brexit, Smith highlighted that the UK has managed in the last fortnight to finally sign off a critically important bilateral trade deal with the country that will largely replicate most aspects of the existing EU-South Korea free trade deal introduced in 2011.

Smith said: “We have knuckled down and made some really good progress towards answering the question to what happens to our trading arrangements if there is a no deal Brexit. We have agreed a continuity arrangement for our free trade.

“It is something that is ready to go and a result of a lot of effort, so we have the answer to the question ‘what happens next?’, if we leave the EU on 31 October without a deal and as such cease to be party to the EU-South Korea free trade agreement”.

He claimed the deal contained most of the advantageous aspects of the existing EU-South Korea free trade agreement.

Britain is Seoul’s second-largest trading partner among the EU members and its 18th-largest trading partner globally.

Smith said the current trade volumes between two such major economies was not very good and could be improved, but added the number of South Korean students likely to study in the UK was set to be held back in the years ahead due to the “uncertainty factor” created by Brexit.

Source: The Guardian