(AFP) – Britain on Wednesday said it had picked a “tough negotiator” to replace its ambassador to the European Union, whose unexpected resignation rocked Brexit plans just before negotiations are due to start.
Downing Street announced that Tim Barrow, a former ambassador to Moscow who has previously served in Brussels, would take over from Ivan Rogers as Britain heads into the talks on its divorce from the EU.
Rogers, who resigned on Tuesday, sent an email to staff condemning “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” over Brexit and made it clear he was still in the dark over Prime Minister Theresa May’s objectives.
He accepted his departure would add to the “uncertainty” following last year’s historic referendum vote to leave the 28-member bloc, but said it was right to leave now.
A highly-regarded diplomat who had been due to end his four-year stint in October, Rogers said he was quitting nine months early so his successor could see through the whole divorce process.
A Downing Street spokesperson described his successor Barrow as a “seasoned and tough negotiator, with extensive experience of securing UK objectives in Brussels”.
“He will bring his trademark energy and creativity to this job — working alongside other senior officials and ministers to make a success of Brexit,” they added.
– ‘Wise counsel’ –
In the June 2016 referendum, 52 percent voted for Britain leave the EU. May has given a March 31 deadline to formally begin exit talks.
The appointment of the new ambassador was welcomed by Britain’s Brexit minister, David Davis, who said Barrow’s office will play a “crucial role” in negotiations to leave the EU.
“His knowledge of Brussels means he will be able to hit the ground running at a vital time, and steer UKRep throughout the negotiation period,” Davis said, referring to Britain’s mission to the EU.
“I am confident that with his help, the UK will be able to forge a new relationship with the EU that works to the mutual benefit of both sides,” Davis said.
Foreign minister Boris Johnson said Barrow had been “invaluable” and thanked him for his “relentless energy, wise counsel and steadfast commitment”.
The move was lamented by Nigel Farage, a leading anti-EU figure in the Brexit campaign.
“Good to see that the government have replaced a knighted career diplomat with…. a knighted career diplomat,” he tweeted sardonically.
– ‘Muddled thinking’ –
May has faced criticism for saying little about her plan for Brexit, including the crucial issue of what kind of access, if any, Britain might retain to the single market.
“We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit,” Rogers said in his resignation email to UKRep staff.
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.
He also criticised the British government for its short supply of “serious multilateral negotiating experience” in London and said the structure of the UK’s negotiating team “needs rapid resolution”.
Rogers came under fire last month for saying it could take 10 years for Britain to conclude a trade deal with the EU.
The government insisted, though, that he was only reporting back what was being said in European capitals.
The mild-mannered Rogers is widely respected in Brussels where he is known as a vastly experienced operator.
His critics say he is a europhile, but European diplomatic sources described him as being a realist.
Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said Wednesday it regretted “the loss of a very professional, very knowledgeable while not always easy interlocutor and diplomat”.
“His resignation is not a surprise for those who work with him,” one European diplomat told AFP.
“He was very competent, but not convinced by the Brexit decision and the British government line, leading the UK into an area of dangerous uncertainty.”
Triggering Article 50 will start a two-year countdown after which Britain will leave all the institutions and the single market unless alternative arrangements have been agreed.