No tears shed in Brussels for departure of Brexit chief David Frost

Reaction to appointment of Liz Truss is one of guarded open-mindedness

No tears were shed in Brussels for the departure of Britain's abrasive Brexit chief David Frost who, along with his boss Boris Johnson, was viewed as personally responsible for the bad blood and protracted deadlock in talks over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Frost was deeply unpopular in European Union institutions and in the capitals of member states, where his approach to talks was viewed as uncompromising to the point of obstructionist.

Perhaps his mission was always going to be unpopular. He sought to change an agreement that had been painstakingly hammered out by his own government, which claimed it as a great success for the purposes of winning an election and passing it through parliament, only to subsequently find fault with it and attempt to pick it apart.

The trade problems complained of in Northern Ireland are viewed in Brussels as the result of the kind of Brexit sought by the UK. Opposition to the protocol is blamed on a political treatment of the issue by London that made it a constitutional issue for unionists, when it didn’t have to be.

To Frost’s interlocutors however, this difficult starting point seemed to be worsened further by a reluctance to listen, a tendency to ratchet up tensions even when concessions were offered, and an ideological rigidity that was all the firmer for being new-founded (as late as two weeks prior to the Brexit referendum he was arguing for the economic rationale of voting remain).

There was no shortage of catty puns on his name to greet his resignation. One diplomat briefed that no one would miss “Frosty the no-man”, while others wondered if it meant a “thaw” in relations. “The Great Frost recedes” was the headline in Politico.

Strained relationship

France's Europe minister Clément Beaune diplomatically acknowledged how strained the relationship had been.

"We had difficult relations, but we always continued the dialogue," he wrote. "It is time for the British government to rebuild a climate of trust with France and the EU, in the interest of all."

Many EU diplomats are convinced that Johnson uses conflict with the EU to shore up domestic political support whenever needed, and assume that the season of tension will inevitably come around again.

However, others question how many fronts Johnson’s government can afford to do battle on, and whether it has the capacity amid the pandemic and roiling political trouble at home to keep up a fight with its biggest trading partner that just weeks ago threatened to escalate into a trade war.

“Given what the world is facing, the UK in particular, and Europe around Covid and this new variant and other big issues facing us, I would hope the mood would be towards compromise and problem solving, not Conservative party politics,” Ireland’s EU commissioner Mairead McGuinness said at the weekend.

The reaction to the appointment of foreign secretary Liz Truss as Frost's successor is one of guarded open-mindedness. There's a sense of: surely she can't be any worse.

“We should give Liz Truss the benefit of the doubt. We do hope for a constructive partner who reestablishes trust in the UK,” an EU diplomat said. “At the same time we need to be prepared for a Frost 2.0 style of confrontation. We will find out soon enough whether Liz Truss chooses co-operation over confrontation.”

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