In an eyrie at the top of the Cabinet Office sits David Frost, Boris Johnson’s former Brexit negotiator who is now the cabinet minister responsible for handling the European Union. His office has the genial feel of a don’s study — there’s a book of Anglo-Saxon verse on his table alongside one of Greek poetry — yet mention Frost’s name to even the most mild-mannered EU diplomats and they begin to fume.
In an effort to understand the apparent mismatch, I ask Frost if he feels the need to be aggressive in negotiations. ‘I hope not,’ he replies. But he does admit that he did feel that way when he first took on the job. ‘Unfortunately, under the previous negotiators, the EU had learned that we said things and didn’t necessarily stick by them. 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.’
The issue that now dominates Frost’s time is a legacy of those negotiations: the Northern Ireland Protocol. When Frost was chosen by Johnson to lead the Brexit talks, one of his main tasks was to drop the plans for the Irish backstop, which had been negotiated under Theresa May’s premiership. He has on his wall a framed and signed cartoon by the Telegraph’s Matt that shows a dismayed dog at Crufts being given an instruction: ‘Now remove the Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement.’ Frost succeeded. But the protocol that replaced the backstop is creating its own difficulties. It is causing greater friction in trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and Arlene Foster, the First Minister, has been forced out by unionist unease over it.
The problem is that the UK signed the document in the first place. Frost insists this was only done under parliamentary duress during the Commons’ Brexit deadlock in the autumn of 2019. ‘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.’
But the thing Frost blames most for the current difficulties, including the ousting of Foster, is the EU’s threat to invoke Article 16, which allows one side to unilaterally override the protocol, as part of the dispute over vaccine supplies in January. He complains that the EU’s action ‘changed the politics and changed the way one community looks at the situation. And we’ve been dealing with the consequences ever since.’
Frost is now contemplating the UK’s own use of 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.’ Frost’s deliberate use of the phrase ‘diversion’ is significant: trade diversion is one of the things that allows for the use of Article 16.
The EU argues that the bulk of these checks would disappear if this country just aligned with the bloc’s rules on food, even temporarily. But Frost is adamant that the UK should not do that. ‘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.’
To Frost’s mind, the answer is equivalence — if the EU and the UK both have high standards, what’s the problem? The EU is very resistant to this idea. I ask Frost whether this is because the EU fears that if it agrees to this for Northern Ireland then the UK will ask for it for goods crossing the Channel too. ‘It’s hard to tell, because they’ve been so reluctant to have the discussion in the first place,’ he says. This is clearly not a negotiation that is going well.
No one could describe UK-EU relations as good at the moment. This month Royal Navy ships were dispatched to Jersey as part of a fishing dispute with the French. Yet Frost is confident that these rows won’t ruin foreign policy cooperation. ‘I don’t think it’s incompatible with friendly relations between sovereign equals to have arguments about trade and resolve them in a grown-up way… There definitely are US-Canada trade disputes and life goes on. And I don’t see why it shouldn’t be like that.’
He worries, though, that too many on the EU side have a zero-sum attitude to the relationship. ‘For at least some Europeans, 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.’ He stresses that ‘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’.
Given all this, isn’t it time for a reset in UK-EU relations? Frost doesn’t think so. ‘I’m kind of doubtful about “reset” as such. I don’t think moments like that have a particularly good history in diplomacy.’ But he does say that he hopes relations can improve and that he doesn’t regard the current scratchiness ‘as a decade-long problem’.
As the interview comes to an end, I ask him what he thinks of the Brexit negotiation diaries Michel Barnier published this month. ‘You have to have been in the negotiations to find them truly compelling,’ he says, damning with faint praise. He adds that they generally are a ‘fair depiction’ of events. But not quite. ‘The last couple of weeks, I don’t recognise his account. He wasn’t at most of the key moments in the last couple of weeks, so that’s possibly not surprising.’ It is one final flick at his old sparring partner, and the sting in the tail perhaps explains why he enrages so many in the bloc.
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