Thursday 14 December 2017

Irish negotiators forced to don blindfold as UK ambassador takes parting shot

'Mr Rogers’s exit email lays bare the central problem with the UK’s approach to Brexit – it doesn’t seem to have one yet.' Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo
'Mr Rogers’s exit email lays bare the central problem with the UK’s approach to Brexit – it doesn’t seem to have one yet.' Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Britain's top man in Brussels didn't mince his words as he penned his exit letter to colleagues.

Citing the absence of any clarity from Downing Street on the way forward on Brexit, and the lack of negotiating expertise in Whitehall, Ivan Rogers painted an unflattering picture of Theresa May's government.

His abrupt departure as the UK's EU ambassador has shone a light on an administration seemingly unprepared for the daunting and complex task that awaits it.

Mr Rogers's exit email lays bare the central problem with the UK's approach to Brexit - it doesn't seem to have one yet.

As the UK's EU representative, Mr Rogers would have sat around the table with his European counterparts - including Ireland's Declan Kelleher - and no doubt faced questions about Downing Street's thinking. His email clearly reflects his frustrations. "We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK's relationship with the EU after exit," he wrote.

He urged his colleagues to continue to challenge "ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking", and claimed the European Commission was way ahead of Britain in terms of negotiating expertise.

The structure of the UK's negotiating team, he wrote, and the allocation of roles and responsibilities, "needs rapid resolution". And he urged colleagues to support each other in the "difficult moments" when they have to deliver messages that are "disagreeable to those who need to hear them".

One senior Irish source said his comments chimed with feeling across Europe but meant we were "preparing with a blindfold on".

"It supports the messaging that's been coming from Dublin and other capitals that there isn't some behind-the-scenes negotiation of a UK plan. Everybody is literally waiting to see and one imagines there's some fairly serious discussions about what they want internally given that there's nothing emanating from them to date.

"We are preparing with a blindfold on at the moment by virtue of the fact that we haven't see their proposals. One might have imagined some degree of information would have come."

Mrs May didn't waste any time in appointing Tim Barrow, a career diplomat and former UK ambassador to Moscow, as Mr Rogers's replacement.

Ms May had been under pressure from the pro-EU exit camp, delighted at Mr Rogers's abrupt departure, to elevate a committed Brexiteer to the EU envoy role. They may be disappointed by Mr Barrow's appointment.

Dubbed "one of the greatest experts" Britain has on EU matters by the former head of the country's foreign office, Mr Rogers had irked those from the pro-Brexit camp because of a leaked warning he made to ministers that a free trade deal between Britain and the EU post-departure could take up to a decade to thrash out.

Former Conservative minister Iain Duncan Smith claimed Mr Rogers couldn't be trusted. But European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy said the personal view of those appointed to such a role didn't matter for the job.

"I think it's really vital at this stage, over the next number of months, that we do see a concrete set of proposals from the United Kingdom," Mr Murphy told the Irish Independent.

"Obviously they will have to have a co-ordinated, agreed position from their own system. Clearly, the permanent representative, the senior British official in Brussels, will have a key role in being a focal point for that co-ordinated position.

"It's not up the ambassadors to come up with policy, it's up to the Government, so it doesn't really matter what the personal view of the ambassador would be."

Irish Independent

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