The new EU ambassador faces the most difficult assignment of his careerby Nicholas Wright / January 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Before the start of 2017, few outside the UK’s diplomatic community would have heard of Tim Barrow. His appointment as Britain’s Permanent Representative (ambassador) to the European Union, following the public and acrimonious departure of Ivan Rogers, was meant to steady the ship. It was also a clear signal from No 10 that whatever the demands of more excitable Brexiteers, the negotiations will be conducted by experienced diplomats.
In this sense, Barrow is a safe pair of hands. He is well-versed in the complexities of EU negotiation and experienced at operating in tough diplomatic environments. He also has the advantage of enjoying the confidence of the senior politicians who have pledged to make Brexit a reality, something which—by the end—Rogers clearly did not, whatever the validity of his warnings about “muddled thinking.”
But who is the man who will lead the diplomatic charge once Article 50 is triggered? Barrow has served in the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (UKREP) both as First Secretary and Representative to the Political and Security Committee and at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in several Brussels-facing roles. In addition, from 2006-8 he was Britain’s ambassador to the Ukraine, and from 2011-5, ambassador to Russia. Here he worked with some success to maintain Anglo-Russian relations during a difficult period: a British colleague described him as having “a reputation for being bulletproof out there”—no mean feat in a challenging and febrile environment for western diplomats.
Prior to his latest appointment, Barrow was political director at the FCO, its second most senior official and a key advisor to the Foreign Secretary. Appointed to that role by Philip Hammond, he is reportedly highly regarded both by the now Chancellor, and his current boss Boris Johnson, who described him as “just the man to get the best deal for the UK.” He also enjoys the confidence of the Brexit Secretary David Davis and perhaps most significantly, of Prime Minister Theresa May. Thus, while the circumstances of his appointment may seem inauspicious, the essential elements are in place: extensive experience as both diplomat and policy maker, and a depth of domestic political support. These will be essential for his new role, and will give his pronouncements considerable weight when he faces his Brussels interlocutors.
The challenges Barrow will face are enormous both domestically and in Brussels. He will need to work closely with his colleagues at the FCO and with the recently established Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). The latter will be managing all UK engagement with the EU for the duration of the Brexit process—both withdrawal negotiations and ongoing EU business in which the UK will play a part until its membership formally ends. His relationship with Oliver Robbins, the highly rated Permanent Secretary of DExEU, will therefore be pivotal given the central role of UKREP in delivering Brexit.
UKREP is the UK’s interface with the EU’s institutions as well as the other member states. It is an essential conduit of information and intelligence for London, but also the means by which British policy objectives are pursued. The Permanent Representative has therefore traditionally played a key role not only in coordinating the complex cross-government process through which British positions on all EU policies are agreed; but also in determining what these are and how they should be achieved in Brussels.
It is this aspect of the role—a combination of strategy and managing expectations in terms of “what the market will bear”—that is so crucial but also so difficult. (This, after all, is where Rogers fell foul of his political masters due to his pessimism.) Barrow and his UKREP team will need to find a way to fulfil London’s wishes as far as possible while also ensuring ministers are fully cognisant of the realities and obstacles they face. He will therefore have to navigate the complex mix of political and ideological positions within the government on Brexit, not to mention the sometimes combustible personalities involved.
And then there is the small matter of actually guiding the UK to its point of departure. Whether that involves a final “divorce” agreement under the auspices of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process, or whether the UK crashes out of the EU in a disorderly hard Brexit remains to be seen. What we can predict, though, is that negotiations will be tough. Barrow and his team will face counterparts unified and determined in their desire to ensure Brexit does not result in further EU fragmentation. (The Economist quoted one EU official as saying there was a 50 per cent chance that Britain would walk out of the talks this year.)
Barrow may be no stranger to hostile diplomatic environments given his time in Moscow. However, the Brexit negotiations will likely represent the most difficult assignment of his career involving an unprecedented degree of scrutiny and expectation—both in public and in Whitehall. Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government recently suggested that Rogers’ successor would “need to be as versatile in understanding the current government as the EU and its member states.”
Barrow will hope he is “just the man” to do that.
On the 17th of January 2017, Prospect hosted a roundtable discussion with the contributors to: Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. This report is designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit. The discussion was chaired by Tom Clark, Editor of Prospect. Participants included Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP, Miriam González and Vicky Pryce.
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