Ivan Rogers on Brexit "What Surprises Me Is the Extent of the Mess"

As the UK ambassador to the European Union, Ivan Rogers had a front-row seat as Brexit negotiations got underway. In an interview, he speaks with DER SPIEGEL about the mistakes made in London and the huge challenges that remain.
Ivan Rogers

Ivan Rogers


Ivan Rogers, 58, was the UK ambassador to the EU for three years before resigning on Jan. 3, 2017. He stepped down after the revealing of an internal memo, in which he was sharply critical of the British government and forecast significant problems for the Brexit negotiations. His book, "9 Lessons in Brexit," appeared in early February.

DER SPIEGEL: Sir Ivan, did you expect such a political mess when you resigned two years ago?

Ivan Rogers: I knew that it would be a long, tortuous and potentially conflictual process. That doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is the extent of the mess and the fact that four weeks before the deadline, the political class is unable to come to any serious conclusion about what kind of Brexit they want. Of course, Brexit is a revolutionary moment, but I have never seena political crisis  like this in my professional career.

DER SPIEGEL: Prime Minister Theresa May this week cleared the way for a Brexit delay. Is a no-deal scenario  off the table for now?

Rogers: It would be a mistake to conclude that. I think there is a serious possibility that we are still paralyzed after March , with no resolution. There will then be a risk that we end up with a no-deal exit in June or July. I don't think there is an appetite in lots of European capitals to simply roll forward extensions while we are still working out where to go.

DER SPIEGEL: Is the British political system broken ?

Rogers: It's not in a healthy state. These are tumultuous times, and I think the political elite has fractured in both parties. You could argue, if you're supremely optimistic, that it's a testimony of the strength of the British system that it still exists and functions in a fashion despite the extent of turmoil we've gone through. The British system can cope with a lot.

DER SPIEGEL: Former Labour and Tory parliamentarians have formed the Independent Group in parliament. Can they play a role similar to the En Marche movement in France?

Rogers: It's far too early to judge. It's an attempt to reoccupy the center ground at a very interesting moment. I worked for Tony Blair and David Cameron, who were the dominant figures in British politics in the last 25 years. Both were centrist figures and deliberately occupied the center ground. That became the tradition of British politics: Unless you occupy the center, you are finished. After the financial crisis and a period of austerity, the center here has since largely collapsed, and the public is deeply alienated from both big parties. In both parties, populists on the left and the right have gained a much bigger influence. At the moment, we don't have serious, established center-left or center-right figures who command public confidence.

DER SPIEGEL: Would a different prime minister have done better than Theresa May?

Rogers: They would have had different priorities. Immigration and the free movement of people is the central question for Theresa May. She wants to reduce the numbers of people coming into the UK both from inside and outside the EU. The consequence was always obvious: Once you end that, you can't have free movement of goods, services and capital. So you have to leave the single market. And if you want a fully autonomous trade policy, you cannot stay in the customs union either.

DER SPIEGEL: The Europeans didn't expect that.

Rogers: They found that quite shocking. The way Theresa May prioritized that very early on indicated to the Europeans that we would be going much further out of the European Union than Norway and Switzerland, or even Turkey, which has a customs union agreement with the EU. In all honesty, I don't think she fully understood what a dramatic rupture that would have been. Since then, she has tried to edge things back. But her problem is: Having started with a hardline position, every time she's moved a little bit back, the right wing of her party cries betrayal. I think other prime ministers could have done it in a different fashion.

DER SPIEGEL: May is not the only British politician who doesn't totally understand the European Union.

Rogers: This is an endemic problem. I am one of the few who has worked for the bulk of my career on European issues. British politicians don't understand what the single market or the customs union is or how the EU really works. This is a problem in many member states, but it is worse here. I have worked with several prime ministers very closely. Although all of them have been very able people, none of them have had a deep understanding how the European Union works. They don't have an emotional attachment to the EU, because we've always had a rather mercantile relationship with our neighbors.

DER SPIEGEL: What is your view of the role the EU has played in the negotiations. Do you think they trying to "punish" the UK as many Brexiteers claim?

Rogers: I don't. If you deliberately leave the club, it has automatic consequences, and some of them are unpleasant. Of course there is a risk: For the British public, who has no reason to understand every detail, it looks as if the Europeans have set up a process to maximize the British pain. I don't think they have.

DER SPIEGEL: Have the Europeans done everything right?

Rogers: They have set up a very well-structured technocratic process which delivers legal text. But I think that European leaders spent too little time thinking about how the future of the continent should look after Brexit. That is a mistake.

DER SPIEGEL: What should it look like?

Rogers: My argument would be that there is still an awful lot of common ground and common values. It's not that the relationship between Britain and France or Germany is bad. But I have never seen a thinner relationship in my lifetime. There is an awful lot going wrong in the world at the moment. But I don't think the European political elites are talking to each other anything like as much as they did 20 years ago.

DER SPIEGEL: Whose fault is that?

Rogers: Overwhelmingly, the Brits have to take the responsibility for this, because it's the British political class who increasingly lost interest in Europe. But let's assume Brexit happens and we remain out for the foreseeable future: Europe will then have 65 million people 20 miles offshore, theirbiggest single trading partner  on this side of the planet and your biggest security partner. And this at a time when you've got trouble to the east and trouble to the south. The British role in this can be important. The German political elites have to think hard: How are we going to work together?

DER SPIEGEL: Otherwise?

Rogers: Otherwise, you will see the divergence that has already started getting worse and Britain increasingly concluding that it has nothing to do with you and drifting to the other side of the Atlantic, which geographically we can't, but mentally we can. It would be tragic if Britain were to turn its back on the continent.

DER SPIEGEL: Unfortunately, the political declaration regarding the future relationship is rather vague and opaque. When it comes to the second stage of the negotiations, which are to lay the groundwork for a free-trade agreement, will we see the same chaos all over again?

Rogers: I think so. It's opaque because the British wanted it opaque. We don't really know where we want to go. Therefore, the other side has agreed to a document which is full of ambiguity. That's very clever, but it doesn't solve any problems. The Europeans are saying: Until you tell us something more coherent and intelligent about where you want to go, we can't really have a debate with you. I understand that. But I don't think that's good enough. I think the Europeans also need to tell us what kind of relationship they want. Just sitting back and watching until London has sorted out its chaos is an understandable reflex. But it's not the right one.

DER SPIEGEL: How long will it take to sort out the future relationship?

Rogers: Much longer than many people think. The planned trade deal is not "the easiest in human history," as Liam Fox has claimed. It's not easy to solve for one simple reason: This is the first trade deal in history where partners are seeking to get further apart. All trade deals I've ever worked on were about getting closer together and dismantling barriers to trade. We are now deliberately re-erecting barriers, seeking a thinner relationship than the one we have. We like the free trade with Europe, but not the European institutions. Well, that's not on offer. That's why the next step of the negotiations will be conflictual again. The Europeans will say: There must be a reason why you wanted to leave and diverge from our model, please tell us what degree of divergency you want and why. You only need to say it that way to realize that this will not take months, but years.

DER SPIEGEL: There are some in London who would like you to come back to help sort out the mess. Is that something you would consider?

Rogers: I didn't resign because I refused to deliver Brexit. I said to my staff on the morning of the referendum: If you can't work for a government that is committed to delivering Brexit, don't work here. My heart was always behind giving the country what it had decided and delivering the best possible Brexit. I am happy to do anything I can to contribute to getting my country to the right place in the next 10 or 20 years. But it's a totally hypothetical question. Nobody in government will ask me to get back into the political circus any time soon.