Lord Frost, Britain’s top minister dealing with the EU, has given a revealing interview with the Spectator in which he dangles the possibility of unilaterally writing off the Northern Ireland Protocol after Brussels attempted to trigger Article 16 earlier this year.
Frost has hit the headlines this week as he continues to refuse to give in to EU pressure for Britain to adopt its rules as a means of removing the new customs border in the Irish Sea imposed by the Protocol. In creating a visible trade barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the Protocol not only disrupts commerce, but has also fomented unrest. Customs officials in the province are known to have received death threats.
But in the former Brexit Negotiator’s eyes, who essentially reprised his role after the new arrangements came into difficulties earlier this year, the EU is largely at fault for post-Brexit agitation because of its brief decision to trigger Article 16 in January. The abortive decision would have created a border within the island of Ireland, in complete contradiction with the original justification for the Protocol.
In triggering Article 16 the EU “changed the politics and changed the way one community looks at the situation. And we’ve been dealing with the consequences ever since,” Frost told the Spectator’s James Forsyth.
Frost is now contemplating Britain using Article 16. “The problem we’ve got is that the boundary for trade purposes is proving more of a deterrent to trade and more of a generation of trade diversion than many people expected.” Note “diversion” is the language used in Article 16 to justify its use.
But MPs at home also thwarted attempts to get a looser version of the Protocol agreed, Frost argues. “We signed it in conditions, obviously, as you remember, where we had the Benn-Burt Act and the requirement to get a deal before we could deliver on the referendum result.
“At the time we expected to be able to get some facilitations that we didn’t get. We expected there would be a trusted trader scheme, for example. We expected, like every other free trade agreement, there’d be an equivalence mechanism in there. None of that we’ve got.”
Frost is not a popular man in Brussels, which the peer puts at least partly down to the wayward negotiating style of his predecessors, leading Eurocrats to not take the Brits for their word.
“Unfortunately, under the previous negotiators, the EU had learned that we said things and didn’t necessarily stick by them,” said Frost. “We had to go through a process of getting them to take our word seriously. And I think that some people interpreted that as sort of aggression or being difficult, but it was just us underlining that when we said something, that had to be taken into account. I think that process is now over, basically.”
Another factor is plain hatred of Brexit. “Some Europeans have a very strong view that Brexit simply cannot succeed,” he believes.
The cabinet minister added: “They have a very strong view that Brexit simply cannot succeed. It’s a sort of historical error that goes against everything they know about the progress of history and the way things work… that is at the root of some of the problems.”
But a relationship can be salvaged: “we don’t have any [problem] at all about the EU and the member states succeeding. We think that’s a good thing. And we think they should think it’s a good thing if we succeed.”
He puts the time it will take for relations to thaw at about a decade, dismissing the idea of a “reset” – a tool made infamous by Hillary Clinton when she served as America’s Secretary of State, producing an actual reset button to press with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov at a summit, it changed nothing.
“I don’t think moments like that have a particularly good history in diplomacy,” said Frost dismissively.
Ultimately, the EU remains doggedly committed to Britain swallowing its rules, known as alignment, whereas Frost wants equivalence, mutual recognition of standards.
On realignment, he said: “I don’t understand why a third country would do a deal with a country that didn’t control its own agrifood rules, since that is so central to what’s important in trade deals nowadays.”
As for equivalence, “they’ve been so reluctant to have the discussion” he admits to which Forsyth comments: “This is clearly not a negotiation that is going well.”
But when is anything going well for the EU?