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Exit over Brexit

Editorial |

Brexit has prompted the first resignation at the individual level. Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, has resigned, alerting his staff against what he calls “muddled thinking” and the “short supply” of negotiating experience over the past seven months, indeed since the referendum on 23 June last year.

Rated as one of the finest diplomats of the UK, his resignation is no less a reflection on the conduct of the follow-through by Prime Minister Theresa May, who had stepped into 10 Downing Street after David Cameron's setback. Is the resignation a testament too to a robust opinion that appears to be building up against Britain’s exit from Europe?

The fine print of Sir Ivan’s resignation e-mail is the strident appeal for independent thinking on the part of British diplomats, most particularly the civil servants in Brussels — the headquarters of EU. The mail is clothed in the pregnant message that those now representing Britain in EU must assert their independence and challenge “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking”.

There is little doubt that the farewell message is addressed as much to the Foreign Office as to the government of Ms May. He has in effect spoken against the tendency to kowtow to the dictates of Whitehall. His decidedly abrupt resignation comes at a critical juncture and the Brexit plan — a watershed development in Britain’s economic history — has suffered a jolt two months before negotiations are scheduled to begin in March.

Sir Ivan’s replacement in Brussels will succeed to a sensitive inheritance; he has articulated his opposition to the praxis adopted by the post-Cameron Conservative government, making it clear that he had been frustrated by politicians who disliked his warnings about the potential pitfalls in the Brexit process.

The subtext is pretty obvious — Britain’s man in EU, who would have been in the forefront of the negotiations, had seemingly been ignored by the gung-ho proponents of Brexit in London. Sir Ivan has bared his angst and there is without question a rift in the lute, and it is open to question whether the outcome of the referendum will reach its logical consummation, one that the “Leave” lobby devoutly wishes.

It is hard not to wonder whether the in-house friction is embedded in political discord. He has been criticised by a section of the Tories for having warned that it may take as long as 10 years for the UK to fully break from the EU. In the reckoning of Downing Street, the ambassador had been articulating the perception of some European leaders, rather than giving his own assessment.

Was Sir Ivan Rogers anti-Brexit and in favour of “Remain”? An answer to the question may not be available anytime soon. From the wafer-thin referendum margin to the resignation, the essay towards Brexit is floundering.