Sunday

23rd Apr 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

Rude awakening for Brexit diplomacy

  • Fantasy that rest of Europe (but not Britain) will compromise once May triggers divorce proceedings continues to be indulged (Photo: Leo Hidalgo)

“We are no longer the 52 percent who voted Leave and the 48 percent who voted Remain, but one great union of people and nations”, prime minister Theresa May said on New Year’s Eve.

The conciliatory tone might have sounded nice, especially after the political earthquake caused by June’s referendum, but May’s New Year message of Brexit unity lasted barely 48 hours.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Instead, Ivan Rogers’ sudden resignation as the UK’s man in Brussels on Tuesday (3 January) has exposed the divide between Leave and Remain supporters in technicolour.

May on Wednesday appointed another career diplomat, Tim Barrow, who was, until recently, the British envoy to Russia, to fill Rogers’ post.

The quick decision was designed to show that she remained in control.

Meanwhile, spokespeople from the Leave and Remain camps have spent the past 48 hours spinning Rogers’ resignation as either a triumph or a disaster.

Appointed by May’s predecessor David Cameron, he had led Cameron’s ill-fated attempt to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership terms, and was held in low regard by May’s advisors and by eurosceptics.

It is not entirely clear whether Rogers was pushed or decided to jump before his Brussels tenure was due to conclude in autumn.

Either way, his resignation note to the team at Ukrep, the British mission in Brussels, which urged them to challenge "ill-founded arguments" and "muddled thinking”, indicated that he was not being listened to by ministers.

Part of a civil servant’s job is to tell truth to power. In Rogers’ case, the unpalatable truth was passing on the warning from other European capitals that a new trade agreement between the EU and the UK would take up to 10 years.

In the eyes of May’s team, this made him a pessimist. For hard-core eurosceptics, it made him a quisling. To most observers outside Britain, it simply made Rogers a realist.

He had faced similar attacks during Cameron’s attempted renegotiation.

“Hardline eurosceptics criticised him for advising Cameron on the limits of what he could ask for in his renegotiation, but he told the truth - that the 27 were not prepared to give more than they offered,” says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.

Rogers’ resignation is also the clearest signal yet that the UK is headed for a hard Brexit - falling out of the EU customs union, and trading with the EU on the basis of World Trade Organisation rules.

Despite winning last June’s referendum, and now dominating May’s government, eurosceptics sound as if they are still in opposition and still fighting a pro-EU establishment, including in the civil service.

This is part of the reason why the “exiting the EU” department currently has just 300 civil servants and is struggling to hire staff six months after its creation. The international trade secretary, Liam Fox, is using LinkedIn to try and find a press spokesman.

It may be that the centuries-old British model of a permanent and, in theory, impartial civil service is hard to reconcile with the black-and-white new world of Brexit.

Barrow, the new British envoy in Brussels, has worked for the foreign office since 1986, but the diplomats charged with negotiating the UK’s exit terms might now have to prove that they are true believers.

May’s team has been spinning Brexit as an “opportunity”.

This indicates that Barrow might have to send out positive messages and memos no matter what he really thinks. His relative inexperience of EU diplomacy, compared to Rogers, could also make it harder for him to stand up to Whitehall.

Nick Macpherson, the civil servant who ran the British treasury from 2015 to 2016, accused the government of a “wilful and total destruction of EU expertise” after Rogers left.

It sounded like a withering accusation, but that is the desired wish of eurosceptics.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nigel Farage, the British MEP and Brexit campaigner, voiced hope that Rogers’ departure would just be the start of a “clear-out” of Britain’s diplomatic corps.

Farage, who was spurned in his wish to become the UK’s ambassador to the US, might have wanted Rogers’ job for himself.

As with May’s appointment of Boris Johnson, a Brexit cheerleader, to the post of foreign minister, that would have made an amicable divorce even harder.

But the substance of Europe’s negotiating position - no single market access without EU immigration - is unlikely to change no matter who speaks for London in the EU capital.

The idea that the rest of Europe (but not Britain) will compromise once May triggers the divorce proceedings at the end of March is a fantasy, but one that continues to be indulged.

At some point, probably in 2017, reality will have to be faced.

If the talks are left to people who know little about Brussels or whose hands are tied by those who hate it, then it is hard to see how the reality of Brexit will be anything other than a rude awakening.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Warm words in London, isolation in Brussels

British PM Theresa May found herself in not so splendid isolation at Thursday's EU summit, where Brexit garnered 20 minutes of time from EU leaders, suggesting Britain is fast approaching European political sidelines.

Juncker to visit May in London next week

The British prime minister invited the European Commission president for a discussion about the upcoming EU exit negotiations, while she prepares for general elections on 8 June with a "hard" Brexit agenda.

Juncker to visit May in London next week

The British prime minister invited the European Commission president for a discussion about the upcoming EU exit negotiations, while she prepares for general elections on 8 June with a "hard" Brexit agenda.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  2. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  5. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  6. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  7. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  9. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  10. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  11. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society

Latest News

  1. France holds nail-biting 'anti-system' vote
  2. Le Pen-Putin friendship goes back a long way
  3. Mogherini should tell Russians their rights matter
  4. Le Pens Freunde aus dem Trump Tower
  5. Sexe et mensonges: l'information russe sur l'UE
  6. Report: Post-Brexit payments, ECJ jurisdiction could last years
  7. Oxford study raises alarm on 'junk' news in France
  8. Thousands to march in defence of science

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AllianceAutonomia to Normalnosc - Poland Urged to Re-Grant Autonomy to Silesia
  2. UNICEFHitting Rock Bottom - How 2016 Became the Worst Year for #ChildrenofSyria
  3. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  4. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  5. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  6. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  7. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  8. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  9. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  10. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  11. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy