18th Mar 2018

Britain names career diplomat to end EU envoy row

  • Sir Tim Barrow (l), with then-UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond, was serving as the Foreign Office’s political director. (Photo: Reuters)

The British prime minister appointed an experienced diplomat as EU ambassador late on Wednesday (4 January), in an effort to quell concerns over her Brexit strategy.

Sir Tim Barrow, the Foreign Office’s political director, was chosen to replace Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned on Tuesday and criticised the government in a leaked letter to fellow diplomats.

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Sir Tim, a 52-year-old who joined the Foreign Office in 1986, is a former ambassador to Ukraine and Russia. He has also worked as assistant director in the Foreign Office's Europe Directorate and as first secretary in the UK permanent representation in Brussels.

In choosing a civil servant with EU experience over calls to pick a pro-Brexit figure, Prime Minister Theresa May showed that she wanted to keep the upper hand in London and send a message to the EU.

In a statement, May said Sir Tim was "a seasoned and tough negotiator, with extensive experience of securing UK objectives in Brussels".

His task will be to quickly establish good relations in Brussels to prepare the EU exit talks that should be triggered before the end of March, and to be able to work with all the political sensibilities in London.

EU ambassador is a "brutal job", a former UK diplomat told EUobserver. "The added value [of the position] is to tell the reality as it is, and advise on how to negotiate.

"You have your negotiation work to do in Brussels, but you also have the political dealings in London to handle, especially now."

'Unfortunate setback'

Even if the prime minister's office, the Foreign Office and the new Department for Exiting the European Union want to handle Brexit talks from London, they still need an efficient ambassador in Brussels.

"The permanent representative is the man on the ground the whole time. He needs to be able to build relationships with other perm reps [permanent representations] and with the institutions, to talk to MEPs, etc… You can't do that from London," the former diplomat added.

He added that the departure of Sir Ivan, a popular figure in Brussels, was "an unfortunate setback".

On Wednesday, in an unusual statement about a member state's diplomat, the European Commission said that it "regret[ted] the loss of a very professional, very knowledgeable, while not always easy, interlocutor but a diplomat who always loyally defended the interests of his government".

In a message posted on Twitter, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said Sir Ivan was "a much respected UK civil servant in Brussels - who knew what he was talking about".

Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right EPP group, said the diplomat "did competent and well respected work for the UK and Europe".

'Smear' campaign

In London, Sir Ivan's resignation took a political turn, with what a former head of the Foreign Office described as a "smear" campaign against the diplomat.

Ian Duncan Smith, a former leader of the ruling Conservative Party, said that Sir Ivan had been "cut out of much of that discussion about where the [Brexit] negotiations will go" because "ministers don’t full trust him".

He accused Sir Ivan of leaking information to the press, suggesting that the diplomat had himself disclosed his warning, reported by the BBC in December, that closing a trade deal with the EU after Brexit could take ten years.

Paul Nuttall, leader of the anti-EU Ukip, said Sir Ivan's decision was "a good thing for Britain" because "he had become far to close to the EU institutions to do his job properly".

The ambassador's resignation highlighted the difficulties of the British government ahead of the Brexit negotiations, with underlying tensions between Brexiteers and more sceptical politicians and civil servants.

In his resignation letter, leaked by British media, Sir Ivan noted that "we do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives" and that "serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply" in the British civil service.

Alistair Burt, a Tory former Foreign Office minister and currently member of the Exiting the EU committee in the House of Commons, said the envoy's message "shouts a very public warning about what is currently occurring on our nation’s behalf as we enter the most important negotiations of our peacetime life".

"If such warnings from a public servant who has devoted his working life to his country are dismissed simply as coming from a ‘Europhile, who deserves clearing out with the others’ or similar nonsense, then we will all be the losers," he wrote in an article published on the ConservativeHome website.

'Time is running out'

In an open letter, Labour shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer called on Brexit minister David Davis to "provide reassurance" that the government would "remain open, transparent and accountable" when negotiating the exit from the EU.

"Time is running out. It is now vital that the government demonstrates not only that it has a plan but also that it has a clear timetable for publication," he wrote.

With EU officials already concerned by the UK government's apparent lack of preparation and strategy, the row over its EU ambassador puts the UK in a weaker position.

"We will probably never know what the British government wants," an EU minister recently told EUobserver, suggesting that the UK government was keeping its cards close to its chest. 

The ambassador's departure indicates that Theresa May is still not sure of which cards to play.

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