Thursday 12 December 2019

No room for envoy with skill to get best Brexit deal when heart rules the head

Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the European Union. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the European Union. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Brian Hayes

Ivan Rogers's resignation as Britain's top diplomat in the EU came as no surprise to me. It was clear that since the Brexit decision in June of last year he was being asked to perform an impossible task by his political masters in London.

As a German colleague said to me in Brussels this week, Mr Rogers was telling No 10 things that it just did not want to hear.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May said last year that she wanted a "red, white and blue Brexit". I suspect that her ambassador in Brussels was advising her that she might end up with those colours all right, but they would more likely resemble a French Tricolour than a Union Jack.

The permanent representatives of each of the 28 member states of the EU, together with their staff, are crucial to how the EU works. They carry out the difficult negotiations and draft the outline agreements for ministers and heads of government to finalise and sign.

Without them, the EU could not function. They represent in Brussels the view of each of the governments of the member states of the EU. They report back what they hear and try to find out what's likely to come out from the Commission.

Mr Rogers was at the top of the British EU diplomatic food chain. He had a long career of involvement with the EU advising both the Tories and Labour in government. He was highly regarded by his contemporaries here in Brussels.

He was an expert on the inter-institutional relationship that is the EU. Remember Michael Gove's remark during the referendum campaign that there were too many experts? Well, Mr Rogers was one of them. His expertise may in fact have been the problem. In many political circles, expertise is no longer valued; emotional commitment to a cause seems to be more important.

Yes he was highly regarded and capable, but he also had something that the British ruling class never fully appreciated - a complete understanding of how the EU works and how EU diplomacy can be used to good effect. I remember meeting him with EPP (European People's Party) MEP colleagues last October. He remarked at the time that the chasm of understanding between the UK and EU, while never narrow even from the moment of the UK's membership, had been growing at an alarming rate in recent years. And now at the point of the UK's departure from the EU, the British would have to become more engaged and more connected across their entire system of government with Europe, in a way that they were never before. It was some contradiction.

He also said a number of very interesting things about the upcoming British/EU negotiation. He compared it to divorce proceedings between a family. And while divorce proceedings are sometimes long, frequently the outcome of a divorce for families is less significant than the treatment of the parties by each other during the process itself. In other words, in his view, how the EU and the UK manage the negotiation itself, especially in terms of personal relations, will matter a great deal in shaping our future relationship post-Brexit.

At no stage did I ever think that Mr Rogers was some EU bureaucrat who harboured ambitions for a federal Europe. He was the one who predicted that Brexit would happen. He also was central to the deal that David Cameron negotiated in the lead-up to the referendum, in trying to address British concerns.

Yes, he was the classic insider. But he was very clear in explaining to us what was going on within the UK government and what the British needed as a minimum from the Brexit negotiation.

His departure is a clear indication that the debate on Brexit and the future direction of Britain is becoming increasingly polarised.

There is also a risk that the senior ranks of the British diplomatic and wider civil service may become politicised.

In his resignation email to his staff, Mr Rogers urged his staff not to be afraid to speak "truth to power".

That tradition of independence and continuity - hallmarks of both our civil service and that of the British - cannot be underestimated.

We still cannot get any answer from the British on a number of crucial questions. Do they want to stay in the single market and if so at what price? Do they want to join a customs union?

Do they want a standalone international trade deal with the EU? If there was to be a transitional arrangement, for how long would it apply?

The outworking of the British decision to leave the EU involves Ireland in fundamental ways. An amicable divorce between the UK and the EU is in Ireland's best interest.

That is what we all must work toward.

But there is no sense from the British side that they understand just how complicated or protracted the process of leaving the EU will actually be. Could Ivan Rogers's departure this week finally be a wake-up call for them? Or will we continue to get more muddled thinking?

Brian Hayes is a Fine Gael MEP for Dublin

Irish Independent

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