In the six months since Britain voted to leave the European Union, there have been few indications of what stance London will actually take when it formally triggers exit negotiations in March.
The abrupt resignation of Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, however, is the clearest signal yet that the balance of power in London is shifting toward a more hard-line stance.
Sir Ivan Rogers, one of Britain’s most experienced E.U. diplomats, helped former conservative prime minister David Cameron force concessions from Brussels in a bid to keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc.
If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal. Nick Clegg, Former Deputy Prime Minister
The British people, concerned about immigration and national sovereignty, rejected Mr. Cameron’s vision and voted for leaving the European Union in June. In doing so, many were backing an alternative path set out by Nigel Farage and the populist U.K. Independence Party.
Mr. Roger’s resignation is another victory for the Leave camp led by Mr. Farage, who called for Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint a “firm Brexiteer in the position.”
“I think it would be appropriate if a lot more people in that position, British ambassadors, left. The world has changed,” Mr. Farage said. “The political establishment in this country and the diplomatic service just doesn’t accept the vote.”
For months, Britain has debated what the vote to leave the European Union should actually mean. Mr. Farage has advocated a hard exit in which Britain not only leaves the union, but also the single market that governs the cross-border trading of goods and services.
British government officials, on the other hand, have mostly talked in platitudes and often sent mixed signals. Prime Minister May has simply said her government will negotiate the best deal possible for Britain, but has declined to elaborate on specifics, much to the frustration of the opposition Labour Party and Brussels.
For his part, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, another leader of the Leave campaign, seems to believe that London can retain access to the single market while implementing tougher immigration rules, a position that European officials from Brussels to Berlin have roundly rejected.
Mr. Rogers was a voice of caution in the often confused debate between Britain’s hard-liners and wishful thinkers. In October, he reportedly told the British government that negotiating a free-trade deal with the European Union could take a decade.
And even then, Mr. Rogers warned, there’s no guarantee that the European Union would ratify a free-trade deal. All 27 member states would have to approve the agreement, a difficult hurdle to surpass.
The ambassador’s warning, leaked to the BBC, apparently miffed the government, which has claimed that a deal can be negotiate in two years. Despite the rift, Mr. Rogers was supposed to remain in his post until November of 2017.
The advocates of a tough line with Brussels have largely dismissed Mr. Rogers’ counsel as the opinion of a pro-European diplomat who opposed Brexit anyways.
“He didn’t exactly hide the fact that his heart wasn’t in Brexit, and he was due to step down in the autumn anyway,” said Dominic Raab, a conservative member of parliament who sits on the committee tasked with overseeing Brexit. “It makes sense all round to give the ambassador who will see the negotiations through some lead time,” Mr. Raab added.
But for British politicians sympathetic to the European Union, Mr. Rogers resignation is just the latest sign that the British government is undermining its already unfavorable position.
Nick Clegg, who served as deputy prime minister under Mr. Cameron, said the departure of a veteran diplomat like Mr. Rogers will only hurt Britain.
“If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal,” Mr. Clegg said. “The government needs all the help it can get from good civil servants to deliver a workable Brexit.”
Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]