Brexit: shooting the messenger

Sir Ivan Rogers’s resignation is a serious self-inflicted wound to the British government

 

The resignation of the UK’s EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers is being taken, or so it is reported, as evidence that a “hard” Brexit is now more likely than a “soft” one. The latter would effectively mean continued membership of the single market but, in practice, has been ruled out already by the British stance on immigration. The resignation, therefore, is in reality evidence of continued confusion in the UK camp about what it wants and of its unreal expectations of a negotiating process that has yet to begin.

That confusion is compounded by a deliberate and foolish obfuscation by Brexiteer ministers of the role of diplomats. Be prepared to see the latter blamed when negotiations do not go all London’s way – as will surely be the case.

Rogers, understandably, has no desire to see himself set up as the whipping boy. His recent professional advice that a trade deal with the EU could take 10 years was taken, quod erat demonstrandum, as proof of his hostility to the whole Brexit project and resulted in a storm of abuse and calls for his head. Yet if a diplomat has a role as advocate, important as it is, his crucial function, and one for which Rogers is particularly well equipped, is to use his extensive experience of institutions and member states to provide sober assessments for political masters of options and potential outcomes, and of the balance of forces lined up on issues.

In his farewell note to staff at the embassy in Brussels he is blunt, complaining that “we do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit” and urging colleagues to “continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and ... never to be afraid to speak the truth to those in power”.

“Senior ministers,” he writes, “who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27.” Even if they will not listen.

May’s problem is that her ministers and the Brexiteers have proved unable yet to move beyond campaign rhetoric and illusions, to the hard practicalities of negotiation mode when what matters is not what should be done but what can be done. We are still in “shoot the messenger” mode, still not ready to read or understand the message.

Rogers’s resignation is a serious self-inflicted wound that even Brexit supporters will rue as they scramble to find a replacement. It confirms what Irish diplomats, a Minister and EU officials have been saying privately about a British lack of preparedness and direction for what promises to be a long and complex procedure that will start formally at the end of March when article 50 is invoked, triggering the departure process.

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