Resignation raises chance of hard Brexit, say officials

EU envoy Ivan Rogers quit months before formal triggering of British exit mechanism

 Ivan Rogers: said to be “saying things that Number 10 didn’t like”. Photograph: Thierry Roge/EPA

Ivan Rogers: said to be “saying things that Number 10 didn’t like”. Photograph: Thierry Roge/EPA

 

What does the resignation of Britain’s top diplomat in Europe mean for Ireland?

Politicians and senior officials say the resignation of Ivan Rogers, the British ambassador to the European Union, is a worrying sign that a hard Brexit is becoming more likely.

Mr Rogers resigned abruptly on Tuesday - just three months before the formal triggering of the exit mechanism by the British and the beginning of negotiations between the UK government and the EU on an exit agreement.

Amid a growing mood of pessimism in Dublin about the type of Brexit likely to take shape over the next two years, Mr Rogers’s sudden departure was taken as a sign that negotiations between the EU and the UK are likely to be rocky.

Patience wearing thin

Irish officials and politicians speculated following the news that the resignation stemmed from an unwillingness in Downing Street to accept the message that patience for the UK in Europe is wearing thin, while one British source said the departure was not surprising.

If one of Mr Rogers’s principal tasks was to act as a medium of communication between the EU capital and London, his departure suggests communications are breaking down. That does not bode well for the negotiations to come.

“I think he was saying things that Number 10 didn’t like - about how the lack of plan on Brexit six months on had diminished British credibility,” said one Brussels source who has had dealings with him.

“I think the inevitable conclusion is that it means a hard Brexit is more likely now,” the source continued.

Senior Irish officials in regular contact with British counterparts, who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity, said they were not surprised by the departure of Mr Rogers. “He may realise what an awful job it’s going to be,” said one.

Worrying for Ireland

Another said the departure would not greatly affect matters in that he would be replaced by another senior official - adding however that its implications for where Britain stands on Brexit is worrying for Ireland.

“The fundamental question still remains: what does Britain want? We’re still waiting for the ball to be thrown in on that.”

Other senior sources said while there had been some signs of a softening of the British position before Christmas, the mood in Brussels had hardened.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan expressed impatience over Christmas that the British government had yet to set out what kind of Brexit it wanted - whether it wished to maintain access to the single market, whether it wished to remain part of the EU’s customs union, and so on.

These choices will be crucial for the future of the Border and the free travel area between Ireland and the UK, but the British government has yet to set out its objectives for the post-Brexit relationship with the EU - something which is the subject of growing annoyance in Brussels and EU capitals.

British prime minister Theresa May has said she will set out her position in advance of the negotiations in an impending speech, though Mr Rogers is thought to have urged that this should have happened before now.

She is also due to visit Dublin this month for talks with the Taoiseach. One senior official says: “The next few weeks should be interesting.”

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