After the shock of the abrupt departure from Brussels of Britain’s most senior European negotiator and civil servant, Ivan Rogers, Theresa May has to do two things.
The first the prime minister has done with the appointment of Tim Barrow who has been ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia. This is a major win for the Foreign Office as Barrow is a consummate professional insider. He has worked on EU affairs under Tony Blair and knows Brussels.
The pro-Brexit politicians and commentators who were crowing that they got Rogers’ scalp should think again. Rogers represented the hard free market pro-austerity approach to Europe of the Treasury. Now there is pro-EU Foreign Office professional in charge in Brussels. Tim Barrow and the Foreign Office are back running EU policy after the unhappy Treasury years.
However, he is helpless until he gets orders from No 10 on what he is required to do. Far more important is the need at some stage soon in 2017, for the prime minister to spell out what Brexit means. She can obtain her political Brexit by April 2019 without too much difficulty. But can she keep at bay the hard-liners who want to crash out of the EU Single Market, the EU Customs Union, about 30 other EU agencies in which the UK is involved like Euratom or Europol or the Unified Patent Office or the European Medicines Agency?
Those problems can be handled in the so-called transitional period after formal political exit and the departure of UKIP and other MEPs from the scene in 2019.
Can she make clear that internal controls will be used to handle the arrival of European citizens here and Britain is not in this first period going to go into the business of erecting barriers and closing doors to the four freedoms that allow European capital, goods, services and people to move where they are needed and can add value? Norway accepts these four freedoms without compromising national independence.
The problem is that May appears to be utterly beholden to the more UKIP end of her Conservative Party. The three musketeers of Brexit – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – make no secret of their willingness to confront a train crash Brexit. If there are pro-Single Market senior Tories they remain quiet out of loyalty to their prime minister while Labour has gone into its own cul-de-sac about immigration controls which is a sure way to alienate every EU head of government.
Both the Tory Brexit MEP Daniel Hannam, as well as a former David Cameron cabinet minister, told me this week that Theresa May was a pro-European Remainer. But she still seems keener on appeasing the UKIP wing of her party and the obsessive anti-EU press than facing them down with Clement Attlee’s immortal words to a left-wing Labour bigwig telling the Labour prime minister what to do in 1945: “A period of silence from you would be most welcome.”
Anyone who knows or has worked with the gently spoken but very sharp Barrow will be glad at this appointment. But until May gets a grip on policy and starts being a prime minister who leads he will be in no better a position than his predecessor.
Paragraph six was corrected on Jan 16 to remove the reference to Switzerland
Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister of Europe whose book on Brexit published in 2015 predicted how it would happen.
Edited by Hugo Dixon