Frost leaves as Brexit minister sounds the alarm in Brussels | Europe
David Frost’s resignation as Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister has raised alarm bells in Brussels, with officials unsure of exactly what the Prime Minister’s approach will be in the new year.
In recent weeks, the UK government has relaxed its approach to post-Brexit deals for Northern Ireland, with both sides negotiating a Christmas truce in the talks on a relatively positive note.
There are fears that Johnson, under enormous pressure from his Conservative right-wing over Covid restrictions, may feel the need to replace Frost with someone who will want to unravel the new approach.
Reports on Sunday suggested figures such as Iain Duncan Smith, the former secretary for work and pensions, or even David Davis, who stepped down as Theresa May’s Brexit secretary in 2018, could be in the running. Both men have called for the dropping of the Northern Ireland protocol in the past.
An EU diplomat said: “I hope the new negotiator will be more pragmatic, making good relations with the EU and its member states a priority over the pursuit of a pure and adversarial Brexit – we are not holding back our breath. “
Frost, who was Johnson’s Brexit official for two and a half years, has been a pugnacious and difficult negotiating partner for Brussels.
He was recognized as having both the ear of the Prime Minister and one of the Conservative Party’s most vocal Brexiters. His apparent endorsement of a noticeable change in tone and policy in recent weeks has been viewed as positive.
While the EU did not fully embrace the change, insisting that Downing Street still sought to reverse past deals, the UK had offered to focus on trade friction issues rather than pursue a more thorough rewrite of the protocol.
But, while there are concerns for the future, few tears will flow in Brussels over Frost’s departure from the scene. He was Johnson’s Brexit mender for two and a half difficult years, providing clarity on the UK’s approach but also a willingness to take negotiations to the extreme, even on the sensitive Irish border issue.
Frost inherited and completed negotiations on the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, a compromise that ensures there is no border on the island of Ireland.
But the minister had been scathing about the deal, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single goods market and draws a customs border along the Irish Sea.
His July command document pointed out that this result had been forced on the Johnson administration because of mistakes made under the previous prime minister.
This year, Frost has sought to unwind much of that deal, his most controversial demand being that the European Court of Justice should not be the arbiter of disputes over the implementation of the law in Northern Ireland.
In recent days, there has been a shift to accept that the CJEU will play a role, albeit simply as a point of reference on EU law for an independent arbitration panel. Frost privately insisted it was not a new position, but other UK officials have indicated it is a change, alluding to difficult conversations within the government.
Diplomats and officials in Brussels were not generous in their assessment of the minister, known to the prime minister as “the big freeze”.
“Lord Frost never succeeded in doing Brexit; he actually made sure that this continues by using the Northern Ireland Protocol to achieve his ends, ”said a senior EU diplomat. “But a year after the deal he negotiated, what did it do for the UK? Apart from mistrust and the deterioration of relations with most of the Member States? “
The diplomat added: ‘Frost seemed to have a very ideological idea of what Brexit meant and that did not promote good neighborly relations.
“For now, the European Court of Justice was too far a bridge for Downing Street, but it will depend on its successor whether we actually see a more pragmatic line emerging.”
Another major issue that will require the attention of Frost’s replacement is fishing, where the French government continues to insist it has been done hard in terms of licensing vessels operating in UK waters.
Frost also expressed frustration that the UK did not have access to Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation program. Two months ago, veteran MP Bill Cash, chairman of the Common European Oversight Committee, claimed British scientists were being excluded from the £ 80bn flagship research program due to the ongoing dispute over Ireland North.