Brexit Blues Hit Brussels as U.K. Envoys’ Morale Falls

  • Ambassador Ivan Rogers’s resignation a blow to confidence
  • Steady flow of Brussels departures since the June Brexit vote

As Prime Minister Theresa May prepares for the first time to outline a detailed Brexit plan -- 29 weeks after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union -- morale among the 150 British diplomats stationed in Brussels has ebbed.

The staffers, many of whom are dismayed by the government’s veiled departure preparations, worry that May’s advisers in London could sideline them in forthcoming negotiations, according to four members of the U.K. team. They’re concerned that would rob Britain of important EU expertise required for a good deal that avoids a disorderly exit.

The resignation earlier this month of Ivan Rogers, Britain’s experienced envoy to the EU who rankled some Brexit supporters, was a further blow to morale in Brussels, said the people, who asked not to be identified without authorization to speak publicly. Rogers departed urging his staff to challenge “muddled thinking” and “ill-founded arguments” from his colleagues in London. His replacement, Tim Barrow, has the task of rallying his troops as May prepares to trigger the exit proceedings before the end of March.

“Their value is that they’re on the ground in Brussels, continuously talking to diplomats from other countries, and know inside out the minutiae of how the EU works,” said Aled Williams, who left his role as spokesman at the U.K.’s permanent representation to the EU in 2015 and is now senior director at FTI Consulting in Brussels. “That’s going to be crucial intelligence for the government in London who will be up against 27 other EU governments as well as the EU institutions.”

To read about May’s plan to detail her Brexit vision, click here

An e-mail sent to the U.K.’s press office in Brussels seeking comment wasn’t returned.

A report released Saturday by Britain’s parliamentary committee for Brexit said a “successful integration” between the government’s Brexit team and U.K. officials in Brussels was “crucial.” This prospect becomes more complicated as May prepares to give a speech on Tuesday saying Britain will seek to quit the EU’s single market to regain control of Britain’s borders and laws, according to a report by the Sunday Times.

The pound tumbled on the report, with sterling falling below $1.20 for the first time since October. The euro also fell while the yen strengthened for a sixth day.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said he will offer the U.K. a swift and “fair” trade deal, according to an interview in the Times of London published Sunday night. He forecast that its exit from the EU will be a success for the U.K., and more countries will leave the bloc.

The fear of declining morale at the U.K.’s permanent representation to the EU, also called UKREP, is one of the reasons that Rogers used his resignation letter as a rallying cry to the staff he was leaving behind. It also hinted at the tension between the British teams in Brussels and London.

“The famed UKREP combination of immense creativity with realism ground in negotiating experience, is needed more than ever right now,” he wrote in a Jan. 3 e-mail to staff. “I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.”

While Rogers’s departure was directly linked to the Brexit process, it comes at a time when the team in Brussels has already been depleted. His deputy, Shan Morgan, leaves this month to become the top civil servant in Wales. In addition, one of the two main ambassador adviser roles has only just been filled.

Since the June 23 referendum, there’s been a steady flow of resignations from lower-level posts. Many officials joined the team in Brussels because the U.K. was scheduled to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, steering through European legislation, on July 1. The Brexit vote put an end to that, and the tiny Baltic state of Estonia will do it instead.

The U.K.’s dying influence in Brussels is witnessed elsewhere. Over the road from UKREP, the most high-ranking Briton at the European Commission, Jonathan Faull, retired last month after 38 years working for the bloc’s executive. His last job was to lead the Commission’s ill-fated task force to help former Prime Minister David Cameron prevent Brexit.

Britain’s EU commissioner, Julian King, who will probably be the last person to hold the post, was put in charge of counter-terrorism, a portfolio vastly downgraded from those held by previous British commissioners.

U.S. ambassador to the European Union Anthony Gardner lamented the departure of the U.K.’s Rogers, whom he described as a close friend, and, using the same words as his British counterpart, said diplomats must continue to speak “truth to power” or they risk feeding cynicism in public life.

“I very much respect what he did,” Gardner told reporters in Brussels on Friday. “If only we had more people in political life who did this.”

— With assistance by Rainer Buergin, Toluse Olorunnipa, Cecile Gutscher, and David Goodman

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