Resignation of Britain’s EU ambassador may be just a bump on the Brexit road
The sudden departure of Ivan Rogers suggests disarray in London. But Theresa May has a chance to reinforce her power
Brexit: Theresa May could use negotiations to redraw UK politics. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire
This week’s abrupt resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the European Union has cast a harsh spotlight on the apparent disarray in Theresa May’s government as it prepares for Brexit.
In a parting message to colleagues Rogers said that he was still in the dark about the prime minister’s objectives in the negotiations, which are due to start within three months.
He suggested that the ministers responsible for planning the negotiations were lacking in focus and unwilling to listen to hard truths from advisers.
“I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power. I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them,” he said.
Rogers’s letter provoked outrage from opposition politicians and retired civil servants, who warned that a government blinded by ideology and deaf to the advice of its own experts was in danger of stumbling into a disorderly exit from the EU. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allows for two years of negotiations, after which (unless the deadline is unanimously extended) the UK will be out of the EU.
The purpose of the negotiations is to agree the terms of the exit and to outline a framework for the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU. The exit terms involve such issues as how much the UK will have to pay the EU for commitments it has already made and the status of EU citizens now in the UK and Britons living elsewhere in the EU.
The more controversial questions surround the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU and whether it will remain part of the single market or the customs union, or if it can negotiate a bespoke arrangement, with some of the advantages of EU membership but without most of the responsibilities.
May named Tim Barrow, a career diplomat, as Rogers’s replacement, ignoring calls to appoint a committed advocate of Brexit.
A former ambassador to Moscow and a current political director at the foreign office, Barrow has extensive EU experience and served at the British permanent representation in Brussels during the 1990s.
Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, believes the reaction to Rogers’s resignation has been overblown. “I think it’s a setback. I don’t think it’s a disaster or a terrible setback,” he says.
Menon is neither surprised nor disappointed that May has not yet worked out what she is seeking from the negotiations, pointing out the scale of the change that Brexit represents. “This is a process that is going to effectively change the political economy of the country, and I think the government is putting some serious thought into what it’s going to want from it.”
One reason for the delay is that London has commissioned a series of detailed analyses of the potential impact of Brexit on various sectors of the UK economy. Much of the civil service has been working for months on these studies, which are expected to be completed later this month.
This information will inform the UK’s negotiating objectives, but the final shape of Brexit will also depend on what the other 27 EU states are willing to concede. Full membership of the single market, for example, looks all but impossible, as May has promised to end the free movement of EU citizens. Remaining part of the customs union also looks unlikely, as it would prevent the UK from negotiating new trade deals around the world.
If the United Kingdom leaves the single market it will have to agree a new trade deal with the EU, unless it is willing to accept some high tariffs and other obstacles to trade. Few believe a new trade deal could be ratified before the end of the article 50 negotiations, so the UK and the EU could negotiate transitional arrangements for the years following Brexit.
Alert for any hint of compromise
“I think it’s absolutely fair to say that Number 10 seems more preoccupied with pressure from the right, so in that sense I think the view from Downing Street is that the potential problems come from the Brexiters, not the Remainers. Now, that might change.
“I think both major parties see a potential challenge to them from Ukip if they don’t deliver on Brexit. I think that’s certainly true. And politically, over 70 per cent of constituencies in England and Wales voted to leave the EU. So in that sense the political direction of travel is relatively clear: it’s more Brexit than non-Brexit,” Menon says.
Although she commands the narrowest of majorities in the House of Commons, May is in an extraordinarily strong position politically, not least because of the opposition Labour Party’s catastrophic poll ratings since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Menon believes the prime minister could be tempted to use the Brexit negotiations to redraw UK politics.
“The way to redraw the political map is to change your domestic priorities so you help some of the harder-off families and deliver on some of the stuff that many of those people voted for – ie migration and the single market. And that might hurt some of the traditional winners out of globalisation, but I think she can live with that.”
The negotiations will get under way as three of the EU’s founding members – France, the Netherlands and Germany – face elections. Some in London believe a victory for the Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen, in France, could strengthen May’s negotiating hand, but Menon warns that such an outcome would mean that negotiating Brexit was the least of the UK’s problems.
“It would put in jeopardy the future of European integration itself. I think European leaders would be too busy fighting for the survival of the EU to worry too much about us,” he says.
“And I think ultimately that, whatever the short-term benefits of instability on the Continent, ultimately in Britain we need a strong, stable and prosperous Europe, because that will help our economy to do better if the EU does better. And I don’t think Marine Le Pen ticks any of those boxes.”