The resigning UK ambassador to the EU warned colleagues to “speak truth to power” and “challenge muddled thinking”, in an unprecedentedly blunt departing email, it emerged on Tuesday (3 January).
Sir Ivan Rogers unexpectedly quit yesterday, on the eve of Brexit negotiations, and some ten months before his official posting was due to expire, sending shockwaves through London and Brussels.
In his resignation email to colleagues [full text below], he also made a list of stinging complaints. Most critically, he argued that the British government lacked “serious multilateral negotiating experience” back in London.
For a professional diplomat to make such comments two months before Article 50 is due to be triggered – beginning two years of intense negotiations – is telling.
He went on to add that the structure of the UK’s negotiating team “needs rapid resolution”.
Although he may be referring to backroom staff, that would seem to be a stinging criticism of the trio of ‘Brexit’ ministers – Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Departing the EU David Davis and Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox.
All three were Leave campaigners, yet relations between the three men have been factious and their positions sometimes contradictory since their appointments under Theresa May last year.
Sir Ivan added that he urged colleagues to provide British ministers with their “unvarnished” understanding through Brexit negotiations – “even where this is uncomfortable”.
“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,” Rogers said.
While Sir Ivan’s resignation has been welcomed by UKIP’s Nigel Farage and the Leave millionaire financier Aaron Banks, there has been no official reaction from Number 10 Downing Street, or any of the key position-holders in Brussels.
However, Peter Mandelson, the former EU Trade Commissioner and prominent Remain campaigner, made a rare political intervention late on Tuesday to highlight the gravity of the situation.
“Our negotiation as a whole will go nowhere if ministers are going to delude themselves about the immense difficulty and challenges Britain faces,” he said.
Rogers was “second to none” in terms of knowledge and experience of Brussels, Mandelson pointed out.
Although Rogers was criticised in December for a leak of his comment suggesting a new trade deal between the EU and UK might take ten years, rather than the two provided for by Article 50, euractiv.com exclusively revealed in 2015 that Mandelson himself was making the same warnings.
The government insisted, though, that he was only reporting back what was being said in European capitals.
The official Foreign Office comment on Sir Ivan’s departure was only two sentences long – a sign of trying to downplay the significance of the event.
“Sir Ivan Rogers has resigned a few months early as UK permanent representative to the European Union,” a British government spokeswoman said.
“Sir Ivan has taken this decision now to enable a successor to be appointed before the UK invokes Article 50 by the end of March. We are grateful for his work and commitment over the last three years.”
London is set to appoint a new ambassador and deputy ambassador – who also stepped down yesterday – shortly.
Rogers had guided former prime minister David Cameron through the tortuous process in 2016 of renegotiating the UK’s EU membership, coming up with the deal that saw limits on EU migrants’ benefits rights for the first four years after entering the UK, as well as safeguarding the City of London’s interests.
However, that deal was rejected 52% to 48% in the June 2016 referendum, which saw the UK opt to leave the 28-member bloc after 43 years.
Triggering Article 50 by March 2017 (May’s self-declared deadline) will start a two-year countdown after which Britain will leave all the institutions and the single market unless alternative arrangements have been agreed.
Hilary Benn, who chairs the UK parliament’s Brexit scrutiny committee, told BBC radio the resignation was “not a good thing”.
“The hard work is going to start very soon,” he said. “And having a handover in the middle of that, depending on when exactly he goes, is not ideal.”
Rogers had been in his post since November 2013. Aled Williams, the former spokesman for Britain’s EU embassy, said Rogers’ departure was a “big loss” to the Brexit negotiations.
“Sir Ivan never sugar-coated his advice: had the credibility to tell his political bosses how he saw it in Brussels,” he said.
Whilst Rogers lacked the panache and elan of some ambassadors, he was seen in Brussels as straight and sincere.
Banks, the millionaire who chaired the Leave.EU campaign group in the referendum, said Rogers was a “pessimist” from the “pro-EU old guard”.
“It’s time now for someone who is optimistic about the future that lies ahead for Brexit Britain. Enough talk, we need to get on with getting out,” he said.
UKIP MEP Farage also welcomed the resignation, saying the Foreign Office needed a “complete clear-out”.
The office of Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, declined to comment.