I.In general, it is worth paying more attention to what ministers do than what they say, especially when the issue is Europe. Earlier this week, Brexit Minister David Frost told the House of Lords that the UK was not afraid to invoke Article 16 – the emergency suspension clause – of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (ATT) that Boris Johnson signed with Brussels last year. . Days later, the government postponed the introduction of customs controls on goods imported from the mainland.
The message is consistent to the extent that Lord Frost’s comments and waiver of border regulation demonstrate that the UK was not prepared for Brexit on the terms it negotiated. But there is a difference between threatening rhetoric that claims to assert UK power and political action that yields border control.
The Johnson government is giving European exporters a freedom of access to UK markets that British exporters do not enjoy when shipping goods backwards. That will put some British companies at a competitive disadvantage and burden everyone with uncertainty. It punishes responsible traders who invested in the preparation of customs controls and now wonder why they bothered.
Postponing border controls is a pragmatic move to avoid further disruptions to supply chains, especially in the run-up to Christmas, when it could be more difficult for the government to blame empty shelves for the pandemic.
Seen from Brussels, that flexibility seems like a sign that Britain is reluctantly adjusting to the facts of life outside the single market. The same is not the case with Lord Frost’s Article 16 threat. It turned out as a direct response to the Vice President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, who had visited Belfast a few days earlier and asked for a rhetoric cooling on the Northern Ireland protocol. That the Brexit minister raises the pressure again immediately shows the limits of pragmatism in Johnson’s cabinet.
This is a deliberate strategy stemming from the view that saber rattling works with Brussels. Lord Frost is a hardline Brexit school alumnus who believes the EU will grant concessions if it sees the UK enthusiastically charging towards a diplomatic conflagration. According to this theory, showing a willingness to break the ATT will speed up the renegotiation on Northern Ireland. Aside from being wrong (a complete treaty change is not on the EU’s agenda), that plan is terribly reckless. If Britain starts burning its bridges with Brussels, it also runs the risk of setting the Good Friday deal on fire. A political arson on that scale would bring Washington on the scene, and not on Johnson’s side.
It’s easy to see how the UK got hooked on risky politics. Brexit is old news in Brussels and would hardly be on the agendas of EU leaders unless Britain continued to impose it there. Having Lord Frost as a nagging annoyance is a way to get attention and get things moving, but it doesn’t change the balance of power between a lonely country and a continent. The saber rattling over Article 16, effectively threatening a full-blown trade war, will not improve the terms of any compromise that is ultimately reached. Lord Frost is wasting time and wasting good will in the process.
He is also replicating Johnson’s approach to Brexit before the deal was closed. But the treaty is settled. The task now is to rebuild the relations that were strained in the years of belligerence before the withdrawal was confirmed. Lord Frost is reenacting battles the Prime Minister has fought once before, believing they ended in victory. Under that deception, he is faithfully serving his boss, but not his country.