UK ambassador in Brussels quits on eve of Brexit negotiations

Sir Ivan Rogers (R) with Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. [Sport Football HD/YouTube]

Britain’s ambassador to the EU has unexpectedly resigned, just weeks before the UK triggers Article 50 to begin negotiating its exit from the bloc.

The Financial Times first broke the news early Tuesday afternoon (3 January), with confirmation coming an hour or so later from the UK permanent representation in Brussels.

Sir Ivan Rogers has led the embassy since late 2013 – including guiding David Cameron’s lengthy attempts at renegotiating UK membership last year, ahead of the fateful June 2016 referendum.

The shock departure, just eight weeks before the March 2017 deadline set by Prime Minister Theresa May to begin the two-year Brexit negotiations, took both London and Brussels by surprise.

However, Sir Ivan had been thrust into the spotlight after the December leak of his memo suggesting a comprehensive Brexit trade deal could take much longer than the two years set down in the Lisbon Treaty for exit, and not be ultimately resolved until the 2020s.

The FT reported Tuesday afternoon that Sir Ivan had written a note to staff simply saying he was leaving early, ahead of a planned November 2017 departure.

However, any upset of the delicate and complex preparations by one of the UK’s most experienced Brussels hands must cast into question the preparedness of the London negotiating side.

In his sporadic briefings with Brussels journalists, including euractiv.com, Sir Ivan was seen as conscientious but guarded – perhaps lacking some of the panache and suavity of other UK ambassadors in major European capitals, but straight and sincere.

“Few months early”

In a three-sentence statement put out a couple of hours after news of the surprise resignation broke, the embassy thanked Sir Ivan for his “work and commitment over the last three years.”

It said he had resigned “a few months early” and that the decision was taken by Sir Ivan now to enable a successor to be appointed before the UK invokes Article 50 by the end of March”.

According to the embassy, Sir Ivan will leave over the next few weeks, and had been due to leave in October.

However, that leaves precious little “reading-in” time for any successor engaged in what is – by common agreement – one of the most complex foreign policy challenges the UK has faced since the Second World War.

The UK has been a member of the EU since January 1973, and has four decades of intertwined legal, financial and regulatory ties to rethink.

Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and now Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman, called it a “spectacular own goal” if Sir Ivan had been “hounded out by hostile Brexiteers”.

Clegg said that “The resignation of somebody as experienced as Sir Ivan Rogers is a body blow to the government’s Brexit plans,” adding that the ambassador was “punctiliously objective and rigorous”.

Although there was no immediate reaction from Downing Street or the Brussels institutions, euractiv.com understands that Sir Ivan’s reasoning was that he “sees Article 50 as the start of a new era, and is so stepping down”.

euractiv.com also understands that Sir Ivan’s deputy, Shan Morgan, is also stepping down.

Charles Grant of the Centre for European Studies, perhaps Brussels’ most experienced UK-watcher, tweeted that it made a ‘good’ Brexit deal “less likely”.

Grant said, “[Rogers was] one of the v few people at top of Brit govt who understand EU.”

Barely 72 hours ago, in her 2017 New Year’s message, Prime Minister Theresa May reassured UK voters that she would seek a Brexit that satisfied both Leave and Remain voters – a goal that seemed ambitious then, and in even further doubt now.

Shocked reaction

One early reaction, in London, came from Hilary Benn – the chairman of the Commons select committee on Brexit, and former shadow secretary. He called the news “a surprise” and “not a good thing”.

Benn told the BBC: “There could not be a more crucial time for the British person in Brussels, the head of UK Rep. It’s an absolutely vital job…honestly reporting back what he was picking up about the attitude of the other 27 [members] to the forthcoming negotiation.”

Richard Corbett, the deputy leader of the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament, said that the resignation showed the “huge gap between the ideologue Brexiteers and experienced negotiators”.

 More on this story as it develops…

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