Liz Truss's Sunday Telegraph article on the Northern Ireland protocol provoked just the reaction she will have hoped for, with most reports focusing on her threat to trigger article 16. Some British commentators suggested that the foreign secretary, who has unconcealed ambitions to be prime minister, was signalling a tough, new approach to the negotiations.
But in stating that Britain "remained ready" to use article 16, Truss was simply repeating the formula her predecessor, David Frost, used at the end of every communication about the protocol. Frost never took the threat off the table but as EU ambassador to Britain Joao Vale de Almeida said on Sunday, its endless invocation left Brussels unimpressed.
By the time he resigned last month, Frost understood that triggering article 16 risked sparking a trade war with the EU that Britain could not afford and which Boris Johnson could not be trusted to remain committed to prosecuting.
Truss knows that if she takes unilateral action on the protocol, the EU is likely to respond by giving the required nine months’ notice of the termination of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). With France holding the council presidency, there is also a chance of immediate retaliation likely to bring disruption to a British economy struggling with inflation and supply chain problems.
In the Sunday Telegraph, Truss described the problems with the protocol as “myriad and manifest” but most of those she listed would be eased by the EU’s current proposals. After his final meeting with Marus Sefcovic last month, Frost said the EU’s proposals in a number of areas were a step forward but did not go far enough and this also appears to be Truss’s opening position ahead of this week’s talks.
Frost dropped Britain’s demand that the role of the European Court of Justice should be removed from the protocol as a precondition for any agreement. There is no indication that Truss has resiled from that position as she states that independent arbitration of the protocol is “what we want to see” but does not identify it as a red line.
She says she will not sign up to anything “which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks” but also says that “we are happy to continue checking goods going on to the Republic of Ireland to protect the EU single market”. A deal could emerge from within these contradictions and ambiguities but Truss must know as Frost did that Sefcovic has no mandate to give much more than he has already offered.