2017/01/05

Britain’s man in Brussels resigns less than three months before Brexit negotiations begin

The angry resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers lays bare the government’s unreadiness for the bargaining ahead
CIVIL servants mostly operate behind the scenes and off camera. Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s permanent representative to the European Union since November 2013, fits the bill nicely. Yet his announcement on January 3rd that he was leaving early became big news because of what it showed about the government’s unreadiness for Brexit negotiations.
Sir Ivan, a former Treasury and EU official, knows everything there is to know about how Brussels works. He was David Cameron’s chief adviser on Europe. He got to know Theresa May when, as home secretary, she engaged in tortuous talks over Britain’s opt-out from EU policies on justice and home affairs. But he has long been faulted by Eurosceptics as too gloomy over Brexit. In December he was pilloried for reporting that it could take ten years to negotiate and ratify a trade deal with the EU. Yet as Sir Ivan put it this week, free trade “does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities.” Such deals can indeed take years to agree.
His other purported sin came during Mr Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms before the referendum. At one point the prime minister wanted to demand a unilateral emergency brake on free movement of EU citizens to Britain. Sir Ivan advised him that other EU leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, would reject this out of hand. So Mr Cameron settled instead for a four-year freeze on in-work benefits for EU migrants. Brexiteers claim that, without Sir Ivan’s excessive caution, Britain could have got a lot more. Yet the EU’s attachment to free movement is genuine and deep—even the benefits change that Mr Cameron won took 48 hours of hard pounding to secure.
Uncertainty clouds Brexit, even after the speedy replacement of Sir Ivan by Sir Tim Barrow, previously ambassador to Russia. Sir Ivan’s letter makes clear that the government has no detailed exit strategy and that its negotiating team is not even fully in place. Mrs May insists she will trigger Article 50, the legal way to leave the EU, by the end of March, earlier than Sir Ivan advised. That will set a two-year deadline for Brexit. A chunk of 2017 will be taken up by Dutch, French, German and probably Italian elections. Sir Ivan pointedly notes that serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall. In the EU institutions in Brussels, it is not.

His resignation supports the idea that Mrs May and her ministers mistrust advisers tainted by time in Europe. Lord Macpherson, former permanent secretary to the Treasury, tweeted that, with other departures, it was a “wilful & total destruction of EU expertise”. Anyone with experience of Brussels knows it is a place in which knowledge of EU customs, laws and procedures is valuable, especially after midnight. Mrs May could be repeatedly ambushed if she is bereft of advisers ready, as Sir Ivan puts it, to “challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking.”
Other EU countries have long been frustrated by the British, who favour a transactional approach to the project over dreams of ever closer union. But they have also come to admire the talent and dedication of British diplomats and officials. It would be gravely damaging to Mrs May if she were to lose those advantages at a time when they are needed more than ever.
Update: This piece has been updated to reflect the appointment of Sir Tim Barrow to replace Sir Ivan Rogers.
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