Johnson’s touch of Frost spoils for Brexit battle

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator on a post-Brexit trade deal on Sunday (6 September) upped the ante ahead of a crunch week of talks, warning that Boris Johnson’s government was not "scared" of walking away from talks without a deal to govern trade from 2021. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

Boris Johnson’s government is anxious to make sure that EU leaders understand that the days of compromise under Theresa May are over. On Monday night (17 February), his EU adviser David Frost delivered that message without fear or favour.

In several weeks, Frost will lead negotiations for London on a future trade deal. And he made clear that the UK has no regrets about its exit from the bloc, nor does it intend to budge on its red lines about regulatory divergence from the EU’s so-called ‘level playing field’ or the role of the European Court of Justice.

In a very undiplomatic speech, delivered to a small gathering of students, diplomats and academics in Brussels, he repeatedly chastised the EU’s failure to understand and respect the motivation behind the UK’s EU exit.

“I do think the EU needs to understand, I mean genuinely understand, not just say it, that countries geographically in Europe can, if they choose it, be independent countries,” he said.

“Independence does not mean a limited degree of freedom in return for accepting some of the norms of the central power.  It means – independence – just that.  I recognise that some in Brussels might be uncomfortable with that, but the EU must, if it is to achieve what it wants in the world, find a way of relating to its neighbours as friends and genuinely sovereign equals,” added Frost

Many of the themes that Frost espoused – that Brexit was primarily about sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ – are not new, nor did he give any detail on what will be in the UK’s negotiating mandate.

A lobbyist for the Scotch Whisky Association before being hired by Johnson, Frost does not have a reputation as a ‘details’ guy. The details, on the UK side, are likely to be handled by Cabinet office minister Michael Gove and his officials.

But it confirms that the Johnson government is much clearer about what it wants – a free trade deal based on the EU-Canada pact – and will be far less amenable to compromise than Theresa May and her chief Brexit adviser Olly Robbins.

The cultural chasm between Brussels and Westminster has yawned wider since the referendum in 2016.

Frost also detailed his own journey to Euroscepticism and the sense of “cognitive dissonance” that drove him from being a ‘typical pro-European diplomat’ to leaving the Foreign Office in 2013

Brexit was “a revolt against a system, against, as it were, an ‘authorised version’ of European politics”, he said, adding another broadside against EU officials who were “unable to take British Euroscepticism seriously, but saw it as some kind of irrational false consciousness and fundamentally wrong way of looking at the world.”

He also revisited the traditional criticism coming from both the UK and elsewhere about the democratic deficit in the EU institutions, which he described as “more abstract, more technocratic, more disconnected from or indeed actively hostile to national feeling”.

“So in a country like Britain, where institutions just evolved and where governance is pretty deep-rooted in historical precedent, it was always going to feel a bit unnatural to a lot of people to be governed by an organisation whose institutions seemed created by design not than by evolution, and which vested authority outside the country elsewhere,” said Frost.

His remark that “Britain was never going to be genuinely committed to the project of turning the EU from a partnership agreement in trade” to an “object of reverence” is a chillingly concise explanation of why the 47-year-old EU-UK relationship was doomed from the start.

While Frost offered no further detail of what an EU-UK pact would look like, other than close to the EU-Canada model, he did points towards the likely direction of the trade talks in 2020.

The government in London is not likely to yield more ground and is prepared to take a short-term economic hit from a ‘hard Brexit’ because it believes that the long-term benefits of leaving the EU will more than balance any such losses.

The EU’s insistence on regulatory alignment as a pre-condition for a trade deal is “self-evidently absurd,” said Frost.

Refusing to sign up to the EU’s pre-conditions on the so-called ‘level playing field’, “isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project,” he said.

Unlike Theresa May, Johnson has a big enough parliamentary majority to be able to take the UK out of the Single Market without a successor trade deal in December.

Just over 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech built the skeleton of British opposition to EU integration, which eventually grew into the Brexit movement.

David Frost’s advocation of the benefits of Brexit, showered with praise by right-wing politicians and columnists, neatly bookends that campaign. If nothing else, it will probably join the canon of the Eurosceptic’s reading list.

At the weekend, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that the EU and UK would “rip each other apart” in the talks. Frost’s profoundly political speech can be taken as a signal that ‘Take back control’ could soon be joined by another slogan in the Brexit armoury – ‘Whatever it takes’.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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