News of Britain’s ambassador to the European Union Sir Ivan Rodgers’ resignation on 3 January dismayed just about everyone except for a group of the most rabid Euro-sceptic, pro-Brexit Tory MPs. It had already been reported in the Daily Mail that “the knives were out for Sir Ivan,” and this same group began to call for him to be replaced with a “diplomat who is energetically pro-Brexit.” This followed on from leaked remarks—some say deliberately leaked to the BBC by his enemies—that he had warned the Government it could take 10 years to complete a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union. For these private remarks he was lambasted by the pro-Brexit Tory MP Dominic Raab, who accused him of being “scarred by his own pessimistic advice in the past.”
Sir Ivan also noted that even if a trade deal with the European Union was negotiated—however long that might take—it would still have to be ratified by each of the national parliaments of the other member states; meaning it could still fail. Downing Street commented that this was not Sir Ivan’s “advice” but simply that he was reporting what other EU member states were telling him. But such a view is clearly nonsense, following the leak of his resignation letter.
At the beginning of this letter to staff at UKRep, the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union (the use of the word permanent is a little unfortunate here), Sir Ivan said that since his four-year tour was due to end in October 2017, he was resigning so that the same negotiator could stay through the whole process. No one was fooled. The rest of the, in diplomatic civil service terms, incendiary letter made it quite clear that he was disgusted by the current administration’s refusal to listen to advice, think the process through clearly, or even let him know what its aims were.
It must be remembered that no government official has had to negotiate a direct trade deal since 1973, when the U.K. joined the union. Such a lack of expertise is worrying. At least this is not the case in the United States, where, if President-elect Donald Trump does tear up trade deals, those negotiators who have just been working hard on the TPP can step in and work on new deals.
Outside the pro-Brexit camp, the dismay at his resignation was immediate. Nicholas Macpherson, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury from 2008 to 2016, tweeted: “Ivan Rogers huge loss. Can't understand wilful & total destruction of EU expertise.” Later, speaking to the Financial Times, Lord Macpherson suggested that there was a widespread fear in the civil service that the U.K. government is not prepared to listen to awkward advice on Brexit. Sir Ivan, in his letter to UKRep staff, said: “The government will only achieve the best for the country if it harnesses the best experience we have - a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKREP - and negotiates resolutely. Senior ministers, 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 [members of the E.U.].”
“I only hope Ivan’s departure is not about shooting the messenger and does not presage a Govean cull of the experts,” Lord Macpherson told the FT. “Govean” refers to former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s post-Brexit vote statements suggesting that well-informed experts challenging populist opinion are no longer welcome in the United Kingdom. Gove’s remarks were seen by many to be the epitome of a shift to a “post-truth” approach to governing. Post-truth—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—was chosen as the Word of the Year for 2016 by the Oxford English Dictionary; its use increased by 2,000 percent over 2015, according to an analysis by the Oxford English Corpus.
Lord Macpherson also told the FT that it “beggared belief” the government had lost the services of “the three best E.U.-qualified negotiators” in the civil service, ahead of crucial Brexit talks. The two other top negotiators who have recently departed are Sir Jon Cunliffe, a former E.U. ambassador, and Michael Ellam, a former Treasury E.U. specialist. And there are more departures to come. Sir Martin Donnelly, the permanent secretary at the Department of International Trade, and another E.U. expert, is stepping down this spring.
Writing in the FT, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and a long-time diplomat, said: “The fact that the U.K.’s ambassador to the E.U. does not know what the government’s aims are just weeks before it plans to trigger formal exit talks, tends to confirm what many have suspected all along: that the government does not have a coherent plan as it embarks on the most important negotiation in the country’s postwar history.” Powell concluded his remarks by giving Theresa May a laundry list of items considered absolutely essential before negotiations could begin: “The prime minister needs to spell out clearly whether Britain wants to remain in the single market or leave, whether we want to remain in the customs union or leave, and whether we want a transitional agreement or not.”
It did not take long to find Sir Ivan’s replacement; Sir Tim Barrow was appointed on 5 January. Like Sir Ivan, Sir Tim is a career diplomat. He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1986 and became the department’s political director in March last year. Experience he gained in that post, where he managed the Government’s foreign policy objectives, should come in useful when handling the brutal Brexit negotiations that will begin in two months, the time given for Prime Minister Theresa May to serve the Article 50 notice to the Union.
In a statement, Sir Tim said: “I am honoured to be appointed as the U.K.’s Permanent Representative to the E.U. at this crucial time. I look forward to joining the strong leadership team at the Department for Exiting the E.U. and working with them and the talented staff at UKRep to ensure we get the right outcome for the United Kingdom as we leave the EU.”
But Sir Tim’s appointment was anathema for the Euro-sceptics, since he is far from being a hardline Brexiteer. Reacting to the appointment, Nigel Farage, the former Ukip [U.K. Independence Party] leader, said: “Good to see that the Government have [sic] replaced a knighted career diplomat—with a knighted career diplomat.”
May immediately went on the defensive. Appearing on Sky News shortly after Sir Ivan’s resignation in her first press appearance of the new year, she said: “Anybody who looks at this question of free movement and trade as a sort of zero sum game is approaching it in the wrong way. I'm ambitious for what we can get for the U.K. in terms of our relationship with the European Union because I also think that’s going to be good for the European Union,” she continued. “Our thinking on this isn't muddled at all,” she concluded in reference to Sir Ivan’s accusations. During this interview, May also insisted that she would be able to secure control over immigration to the U.K. at the same time as negotiating favourable trade agreements with the European Union during the coming talks. But Sir Ivan said: “Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.”
Unfortunately, such a view is not shared by the other 27 members. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was important for the European Union to make clear that “access to the single market can only be possible on the condition of respecting the four basic freedoms [movement of goods, people, services, and capital over borders]. Otherwise one has to talk about limits.”
The question for compliance officers is—how do we know what deals are in place at any one time? It seems inconceivable that the European Union will allow access to the Single Market during protracted negotiations, so what tariffs, what ‘limits’ will be in place on trade country by country and with the European Union as a whole? Uncertainty seems inevitable, and it’s not going to make anyone’s job easier.
And the loss of the most knowledgeable and experienced negotiators who understand how other EU countries and representatives work makes UKRep’s job about as tough as a chicken trying to find its coop while running around a farmyard without its head.
It must be remembered that no government official has had to negotiate a direct trade deal since 1973, when the U.K. joined the union. Such a lack of expertise is worrying. At least this is not the case in the United States, where, if President-elect Donald Trump does tear up trade deals, those negotiators who have just been working hard on the TPP can step in and work on new deals. Tory MP Oliver Letwin, who now leads the European secretariat in the Cabinet Office, admitted back in July that the United Kingdom had no trade negotiators because all British trade officials were employed by the European Union on the continent. They are hardly likely to be repatriated for the purpose of working for the government. Then, Sir Simon Fraser, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, disclosed in an initial government review that Whitehall has only 20 “active hands-on” trade negotiators and will be up against 600 experienced trade specialists for the European Commission. “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the [E.U.] Commission or in the Council,” as Sir Ivan said in his letter.
What chance has plucky little Britain (which could soon be reduced to England and Wales if Scotland leaves and Northern Ireland reunites with the Irish Republic to remain in the European Union) under these conditions?
In Sir Ivan’s much quoted quotation: “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.” Not so much muddled thinking as “she’s kidding herself” thinking.