Brexit: This time the United Kingdom may go over the top

David Frost and the Brexit ultras cannot accept they are wrong on single market and NI

British Brexit minister David Frost has claimed that the EU attempted to use Northern Ireland to try and reverse the Brexit referendum, accusing the bloc of "overreach when the UK's negotiating hand was tied." Video: Reuters


In the last two years the United Kingdom has signed two treaties with the European Union, the withdrawal agreement containing the Northern Ireland protocol, and a trade and co-operation agreement. It is worth recalling this because to listen to the government would give the impression it faces a deeply hostile EU which wants nothing more than to see Brexit fail economically and Northern Ireland suffer most.

According to the UK’s lead EU negotiator, Lord Frost, speaking in Lisbon this week, the government of which he is part is no longer obsessed with Brexit. Any appearance to the contrary, such as repeatedly suggesting the EU is unreasonable, is merely an unfortunate misunderstanding.

If this sounds familiar, there is good reason. For it suggests a UK government which 5½ years after the Brexit vote still does not understand the difficulty this causes in Northern Ireland.

Equally it suggests that its negotiating tactics remain the same. If the UK speaks a bit more clearly, sends some more legal text, makes a few more threats, that the EU will finally see reason; it will realise borders are not required for goods going from Great Britain to the EU via Ireland, and the single market will be protected all the same.

It is often stated that Britain has not got over victory in the second World War, but these tactics are more suggestive of the first World War: once more over the top and this time it will be different. And, so far, with the same lack of success. But this time, or at least some time, it will be successful, for anything other than Northern Ireland fully Brexiting on the same basis as the rest of the country will always be a problem to Frost.

Now it may seem incredible that the UK government has not enhanced its understanding of Brexit in 5½ years. Some think that it must be deliberate, an attempt to undermine the EU or Belfast Agreement. Yet, a close reading of actions and words suggests it’s more a case of genuine belief.

Most prominent in this regard is Frost’s constant underplaying of the risks to the single market to support the argument that a light touch regulatory approach cannot be a threat. In the latest speech he suggests the UK will never check imported products as the EU does, as if this issue is simply unimportant.

The latest focus on the unacceptability of the European Court of Justice ruling in Northern Ireland also fits the incomprehension theory. If the entire protocol is unnecessary then that goes for the governance structures as much as anything else.

It is unsurprising that someone so convinced they are right in turn becomes frustrated at the failure of the other side to understand them. This looks like provocation to him and in turn makes the constant suggestions of invoking Article 16 seem like the appropriate response. Not that he actually wants trade conflict, in case things get messy. It is just that he thinks the repeated threats will eventually make the EU see sense.

That a UK minister has such a simplistic world view might sound unbelievable, but it fits with a wider view at odds with conventional wisdom. In a February 2020 speech Frost suggested without evidence that the impact of regulatory barriers to trade were exaggerated. This week’s sequel offered the surprising thought that the UK had no interest in what happened in the EU, a view unlikely to be shared by business.

At the Conservative party conference he described the UK’s EU membership as a long bad dream and now suggests EU countries are essentially undemocratic. For an ex-diplomat and negotiator, his remarks seemed poorly framed to win friends. His incitement of Northern Ireland’s unionists is downright dangerous. But he is convinced that with the EU only tough talk delivers change.

None of which is easy to handle for Ireland and the EU. For assuming Frost doesn’t change his views, and the EU maintains a belief the single market needs protection, there is no possible stable solution.

Declare victory

Compromise proposals are of no use when one side doesn’t recognise an issue, even if it may temporarily accept them and declare victory, to return to the subject later.

Previously the threat of EU economic sanctions and US diplomatic pressure stopped the UK government disowning the protocol. That may change if frustration grows and the serious incitement of unionists proves hard to reverse. This time the UK may go over the top, and if not, like those first world war generals Frost will retain this course of action as the main future option. Any statement by the European Union that it will respond in kind will be disbelieved and any climbdown in the face of pressure from business or the US will be temporary.

Ultimately, Frost and Brexit ultras are never going to accept they are wrong about the single market and Northern Ireland. They simply do not accept that EU law should apply to goods there.

British prime minister Boris Johnson may tire of all this if it looks like costing him popularity, or bringing about a trade conflict that could impose real damage. A US trade deal, conditioned on acceptance of the protocol, would keep matters quiet for a while.

For the moment however the PM is probably happy to keep the troublemakers onside. The consequential economic damage is unfortunate, like the huge casualties tolerated by first World War generals.

Behind all of this, the case of Northern Ireland and Brexit remains hugely complex. The view of the UK lead negotiator is simplistic. That conflict is irreconcilable.

David Henig is director, UK Trade Policy Project at European Centre for International Political Economy

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