Britain’s Top Envoy to E.U. Resigns, Complicating ‘Brexit’ Plans


LONDON — Complicating his country’s already fraught preparations for exiting the European Union, Britain’s top diplomat in Brussels resigned unexpectedly on Tuesday, less than three months before withdrawal negotiations are scheduled to start.

The decision by the diplomat, Ivan Rogers, the permanent representative to the European Union, deprives Britain of one of its most knowledgeable officials as it tries to form a coherent strategy for untying more than four decades of European integration.

It also underscores some of the tensions at the highest level of government as Britain’s exit, known as Brexit, dominates the political agenda after last year’s referendum, in which voters opted by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the bloc.

Mr. Rogers did not offer a public explanation for his departure. In a statement, the British government said he had been due to complete his term in October and was leaving early to give his successor a chance to take over before formal exit negotiations start.

But in recent weeks Mr. Rogers was the focus of criticism from hard-line supporters of a British exit, after reports surfaced that he had privately warned that trade talks on quitting the bloc could last a decade — and even then might fail.

Nevertheless, his departure took politicians and diplomats by surprise, as many analysts had expected Mr. Rogers to use his expertise to play a leading and constructive role in the complex withdrawal talks.

The announcement polarized opinion at home, worrying those who want Britain to manage a smooth withdrawal and to retain a close relationship with the bloc, but pleasing advocates of a swift and sharp break, known as a “hard Brexit.”

Interactive Feature | Background on Britain’s E.U. Decision The country has voted to leave an economic and political union of 28 nations intended to deliver peace, stability and prosperity.

On Twitter, Nicholas MacPherson, a former senior civil servant at the British Treasury, described the departure as part of a “wilful & total destruction of E.U. expertise.” Hilary Benn, an opposition Labour lawmaker who leads a parliamentary committee on withdrawal from the bloc, told the BBC that Mr. Rogers’s departure was “not a good thing” so close to the start of negotiations, when “there could not be a more crucial time for the British person in Brussels.”

But some hard-line “Leave” supporters see many British diplomats as voices tainted by their experience in Brussels. In a statement, Arron Banks, a businessman and the chairman of Leave.EU, described Mr. Rogers as “far too much of a pessimist, and yet another of the establishment’s pro-E.U. old guard.”

In Brussels, Mr. Rogers was known and trusted by his counterparts from other member states. At least in the short term, his successor is unlikely to receive such a sympathetic hearing — something that can only complicate talks that already seem destined to be submerged in an atmosphere of antagonism.

Charles Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute, said on Twitter that the resignation “makes a good deal on Brexit less likely,” adding that Mr. Rogers was one of the few people at the top of the British government who understood the workings of the bloc.

Mr. Rogers told staff members, and other diplomats, of his imminent departure in an email circulated on Tuesday. In a statement, the British government said he was resigning “a few months early,” and had “taken this decision now to enable a successor to be appointed before the U.K. invokes Article 50 by the end of March,” a reference to the treaty article that sets a two-year timetable for a member country to complete withdrawal negotiations.

However, reported private warnings by Mr. Rogers over the complexity of a British exit had made him the object of sharp criticism from prominent hard-line supporters of a withdrawal, including Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative lawmakers.

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When those reports surfaced, the office of Prime Minister Theresa May did not deny their substance but said that the ambassador was reflecting the views of other member countries, and that it was not his own assessment.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a protracted negotiation was a far cry from some claims that a new relationship could be struck within the two-year timetable envisaged under the withdrawal process.

In that respect, the situation underscored the difficulty British diplomats face in trying to advise their political masters on the complexities of the move, without provoking the wrath of its supporters.

Mr. Rogers was thought to have a good personal relationship with Mrs. May, with whom he worked on European antiterrorism, immigration and security policies during her time as Britain’s home secretary.

Although Mrs. May was said to have listened to Mr. Rogers’s advice, his relationships with some aides in Downing Street, and with some other government figures, may have been more strained.

Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister and a Liberal Democrat, said in a statement that “if the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal.” He added: “The government needs all the help it can get from good civil servants to deliver a workable Brexit.”

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