Former EU ambassador warns May has 'burnt goodwill with EU capitals'

PUBLISHED: 23:00 20 February 2019 | UPDATED: 23:00 20 February 2019

Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the European Union. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to the European Union. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP

The UK's former ambassador to the EU has warned that attitude towards Brexit in European capitals have hardened "quite markedly" in the last two or three weeks.

There is now a widespread view among the remaining 27 EU states that the chances of a no-deal Brexit are above 50%, Sir Ivan Rogers told the House of Lords European Union Committee.

Sir Ivan - who quit as permanent representative in Brussels in January 2017 in protest at the government’s handling of Brexit - said Theresa May has lost an “awful lot” of goodwill by supporting demands to rewrite the Withdrawal Agreement she signed last November.

He told the cross-party committee the prime minister had relied on a strategy of “running down the clock and playing it as hardball as possible”, seeking to win over critics on both sides of the argument by telling them: “It’s my way or the abyss.”

European leaders have questioned the PM’s “good faith” after she urged them to sign a Withdrawal Agreement in November to allow her to get it through parliament by Christmas, only to then postpone the vote until January and then support an amendment demanding it should be reopened.

“An awful lot of goodwill has been burnt through,” said Sir Ivan.

“I have been on the receiving end of quite a lot of views on that, most of which are not easily printable.

“There has been a hardening of attitudes over the last few weeks, post-Brady and Malthouse, and that comes from some of our best friends in northern Europe, not just predictable capitals.

“There is a definite entering of iron in the soul in parts of Europe at the moment.

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“People’s estimation of the possibility now of an accidental no-deal has gone up.

“We are seeing a massive uptick in momentum of preparing for no-deal in Brussels and European capitals.”

Sir Ivan said the EU27 still wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but he warned: “There is a danger that it develops a momentum of its own and that in capitals the feeling is rising that we may well end up there by the summer because there may be no alternative and she may have no authority to get anything through the House.”

There was no prospect of the EU27 agreeing to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and British proposals for a unilateral exit mechanism or time-limit on the backstop were “a no-no for the EU”, he said.

He also dismissed the so-called Malthouse compromise drawn up by MPs on the Remainer and Brexiteer wings of the Tory Party as “irrelevant” as it relies on “technology which doesn’t yet exist”.

In her talks with Brussels in the coming days and weeks, May might be able to obtain a formal codicil spelling out in greater detail the EU’s assurances that it will not seek to hold the UK in the backstop indefinitely.

But he said: “You look at the situation from the outside and think it’s a very significant risk.

“I think this is going right to the wire now - to the March European Council.

“We are only five weeks away. How on Earth are we going to leave the EU on March 29 in good order, in orderly fashion and ram all the implementing legislation for the Withdrawal Agreement through both Houses of Parliament when the deal is probably several weeks away and most people I know are saying not much will happen until the second week of March?”

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