Changing of the guard at Brussels embassies
Europe Letter: Both Britain and the US have made interesting new appointments
Declan Kelleher (centre) has been named as the new Irish Ambassador to the EU. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
September is traditionally a time of change as thoughts turn to new possibilities for the term ahead. Brussels has seen more than the usual level of change this autumn, with a series of personnel changes at the top echelons of diplomatic missions to the EU.
Following the frenetic activity of the Irish presidency of the Council of the EU, the State has a new Ambassador to the EU. Declan Kelleher, fresh from nine years in Beijing, has replaced Rory Montgomery, who has moved to Paris as the Irish Ambassador to France.
As a former Irish ambassador to the EU’s political and security committee, Kelleher has direct experience of the Brussels system. Together with deputy permanent representative Tom Hanney, he will lead a team of approximately 85 at the Irish “perm rep” in Brussels.
As Ambassador to the EU, Kelleher finds himself at the apex of the complex system that governs the European institutions’ relationship with member states. Central Brussels is dotted with diplomatic missions from the union’s 28 countries, each tasked with representing national interests. In practice this means negotiating, debating and reviewing thousands of files on a myriad of EU issues that affect national legislation, through regular meetings with senior officials from each member state.
The centrality of the permanent representation to the legislating process in Brussels, and its position at the interface between national and European politics, makes two recent ambassadorial appointments all the more interesting.
State of relationships
The appointment by Britain and the US of new ambassadors at their respective missions in Brussels reveals something of the state of their relationships with Europe.
Most significant is the appointment of Ivan Rogers as Britain’s ambassador to the EU. Rogers replaces Sir John Cunliffe, who has been appointed deputy governor of the Bank of England.
While currently British prime minister David Cameron’s adviser on European and global affairs, Rogers was previously private secretary to Tony Blair during his tenure at Number 10, before moving to the world of corporate finance.
More importantly, he has impeccable EU credentials. Rogers was chief of staff to Leon Brittan, former vice-president of the European Commission, in the 1990s, working alongside a young Nick Clegg and Catherine Day, the current secretary general of the European Commission.
The appointment of Rogers comes at a sensitive time in British-EU relations, with Cameron pledging to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of an “in-out” referendum if the Conservatives win the next election.
Stirrings of discontent
The appointment has caused stirrings of discontent in London. Conservative MP Bill Cash – a weathervane for British Euroscepticism – has said the appointee should be questioned by a parliamentary committee.
With the new ambassador likely to play a central role in any renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, Rogers’ appointment is hugely significant. While widely perceived as much more pro-Brussels than his predecessor, he has already been central in the formulation of Britain’s latest policy stance on Europe from Whitehall.
As Cameron’s adviser on EU affairs, Rogers was involved in the formulation of the prime minister’s landmark speech on Europe in January. He is at Cameron’s side at EU summits, and accompanies him on foreign trips, such as his April visit to Berlin to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Rogers assumes the role at a time when Britain’s standing in Brussels is uncertain. While EU officials give credit to Britain’s ability to contribute and debate constructively around the negotiating table, Britain has found itself isolated on a number of policy decisions, particularly in legislation relating to the financial industry. Though still considered a heavyweight in terms of EU decision-making, Britain’s pledge to renegotiate its links with Europe put question marks over its long-term commitment to the EU. In a system where national alliances are crucial, having British support for a proposal is less reassuring than it once was.
The challenge of how to make an impact on substantive legislative issues at a time when Britain’s commitment to the EU project is under question will be a key test for the incoming ambassador.
Elusive trade deal
Meanwhile, the US has appointed Anthony Luzzatto Gardner as its top representative in Brussels. Again, his background as a central player in the 1995 New Transatlantic Agenda, which established goals for EU-US trade engagement, tells something of US priorities in Europe as both blocs try to progress an ambitious, and previously elusive, transatlantic trade deal.
But with Europe still smarting over revelations that the US bugged EU offices across the world, Gardner’s diplomatic skills are likely to be first deployed in soothing relations as the EU and US seek to rebuild a platform of mutual trust to begin negotiations.