Post-Brexit muddled times: the resignation of UK’s top ambassador and Theresa May’s vague plans

teresa-may-2017-brussels

Ms Theresa MAY, UK Prime Minister at European Council, Brussels 15/12/2016. Shoot location: Bruxelles – BELGIUM Shoot date: 15/12/2016 Copyright: European Union.

Last week,  unexpected news casted more shadows over the already complex Brexit negotiations matter. Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, abruptly resigned and left his cabinet several months before his mandate was due to an end.

Officially, Mr. Rogers left his position “to give time” to his successor to take charge of the Brexit negotiations, but his departure is largely seen as another sign of the intensifying pressure that Theresa May’s government is due to face, just less than three months now before British Prime Minister triggers the formal Brexit negotiations.

The background

Sir Ivan Rogers has been the head of the British embassy in Brussels since late 2013, when he was appointed a Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The Financial Times was the first to report last Tuesday that Sir Ivan had written a note to say he was leaving early, ahead of a planned departure in November 2017.

And despite the fact that he explained in an email seen later by The Guardian that he was leaving now to give time to his successor to manage well in advance the Brexit negotiations with the European Union, Mr. Rogers’ resignation grounds his roots well deeper than just a simple matter of organisation.

Leaked warning

Sir Ivan Rogers’ name had become indeed very popular already last month, when his warning to Downing Street that a UK-EU trade deal might take up to 10 years to finalise leaked in mid-December. A No 10 spokesperson immediately dismissed the suggestion, but having the most prominent British negotiator to Brussels claiming that a comprehensive Brexit deal could take about five times longer than what his government is pretending, created by all means a huge issue for PM Theresa May.

Sir Rogers’ decision allegedly came after he was heavily criticised by Brexiteers, including a few reps of the Tory wing who blamed him for “gloomy pessimism”. He has also been repeatedly criticised for setting out how other EU leaders view the Brexit process. There might be also evidence that Sir Rogers too complained about Theresa May’s approach towards Brexit during a private meeting with former UK PM Cameron.

The Sunday Times reported last weekend indeed that the diplomat held secret talks with Mr. Cameron before Christmas and reportedly told the former PM that May was “not doing enough” to prepare for the risk of the UK making a “disorderly” departure from the EU.

Harsh inner debate

Now the departure of Sir Rogers, who warned his staff of “ill-founded arguments” and “muddled thinking” in London, reveals how complex the preparation of the post-Brexit talks with Brussels is, even from an internal point of view.

The debate in Westminster nowadays doesn’t look so soft either. Lord Nick MacPherson, the former top civil servant at the Treasury, said Rogers’ departure was a “huge loss” and declared that such a happening so close to the start of Brexit negotiations amounted to a “wilful and total destruction of EU expertise”.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described Sir Rogers’ resignation as a “body blow” to the “Government’s Brexit plans”. “If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in Government – he said – it counts as a spectacular own goal”.

The Huffington Post also quoted Hilary Benn, the Labour Chairman of the Commons Brexit Committee, as saying that the departure of the diplomat came at a bad time given the UK was about the begin the “most important negotiation the country has engaged in for decades”.

Theresa May’s vague plan

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has now found herself in a very critical moment for her political life. Mrs. May knows perfectly that she needs to act quickly in order to calm tensions, and she already started to move cards. As a first move, PM May has already appointed former Moscow envoy Tim Barrow as a replacement for Sir Ivan Rogers.

The act surprised many for the speed of action, as if the decision of replacing Rogers with Barrow had already been taken behind the curtain. Many also saw such a quick move as a proof of “anxiety” by Downing Street, but PM May’s decision to have Mr. Barrow in Brussels looks more like a move to reassure promptly those in the civil service who feared the role would have been given to a “wholehearted Brexiteer”, and so that the role would have become heavily politicised.

New diplomat

Mr. Barrow was the UK ambassador to Moscow until 2015 and in March 2016, and was described by a Downing Street spokesperson as “a seasoned and tough negotiator, with extensive experience of securing UK objectives in Brussels”. “I am honoured to be appointed as the UK’s permanent representative to the EU at this crucial time”, Barrow said. “I look forward to joining the strong leadership team at UKRep to ensure we get the right outcome for the United Kingdom as we leave the EU”, he also underscored last week.

A public statement

Also, British Prime Minister May is believed to be preparing her direct response to Sir Rogers’ leaving. The Guardian and other prominent British media outlets reported at the end of last week that Mrs. May will make a major speech later in January, outlining priorities and the vision behind Brexit negotiations.

“Over the coming weeks, I’ll be setting out more details of my plan for Britain”, May told Sky on Sunday. The Prime Minister is expected to address the UK’s access to the single market, new immigration system and concessions on freedom of movement. The point is that, other than that, UK’s Prime Minister desperately needs a public speech to dismiss growing accusations that her Government lacks an exit strategy. The situation is very delicate at the moment.

The signs

Signs that a “harder Brexit” than what May’s team is expecting is due to come are pretty much everywhere. Sir Rogers’ resignation means the UK government has suddenly and unexpectedly lost one of its most experienced and trustworthy negotiators, a true point of reference of foreign policy for Britain. Moreover, Rogers was far from being the only political figure to think that it will take more than two years to find an agreement with Brussels, and also that such an agreement could be very onerous for London.

Late last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility, which is basically the government’s own spending watchdog, came in with a report that showed that Brexit will impact public finances by £ 59 billion. Once again and once more, those views were labelled by Conservative politicians as too pessimistic and based on “a very high degree of uncertainty”.

“Complexity of the issues”

UK’s Prime Minister May repeatedly declared she will trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, which is the one that allows a Member State to withdraw from the Union with a notification to the European Council, in the first quarter of 2017, and that there will be no need of more than two years of divorce talks.

However, last Sunday, Mrs. May also told Sky News she believes it is “important to take some time to look at the complexity of the issues”. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU”, she also added.

It looks like there will be more surprises to come from now on to the official start of the already complex post-Brexit negotiations. The Sting will be monitoring the issue closely.

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