One early complaint made by British Eurosceptics about EU membership was the undue influence of “unelected bureaucrats”. Quindi c'è un po' di ironia, o forse solo ipocrisia, about the power wielded by Lord Frost over a vital area of national interest.
Lord Frost sits in the cabinet as Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister by virtue of a peerage. He has never faced election. He has been a bureaucrat (at the Foreign Office) and an industry lobbyist (for scotch whisky). In the latter role, he was unimpressed by the economic case for Brexit. “Even the best-case outcome can’t be as good as what we have now," he wrote nel 2016.
Lord Frost’s current position is different, but it unintentionally vindicates his old view. He is upset by the barriers to trade raised by Brexit, especially as they affect Northern Ireland. La settimana scorsa, lui repeated a warning that the government was prepared to trigger article 16 – an emergency brake clause in the Brexit deal – if British objections to the Northern Ireland protocol are not satisfied. The EU responds that significant concessions have already been offered with no reciprocal engagement and that UK demands regarding European court jurisdiction are unreasonable, being peripheral to the practical matter of trade flows.
The treaty envisages article 16 as a remedy for specific problems with the operation of the protocol. But Lord Frost’s complaint is the “imposition of EU law” as adjudicated by the European court of justice. That is a function of Northern Ireland remaining in the single market for goods – a choice agreed by all sides to avoid imposing a land border on the island of Ireland. If the UK is now rejecting that compromise, it is, in effetti, repudiating the whole deal. Article 16 triggered on that basis would be seen as a hostile act and met with robust counter-measures.
UN trade war is not inevitable. A landing zone for agreement is discernible through the rhetorical fog. Ending European court involvement is a non-starter, since it means rejecting the unique regulatory status carved out for Northern Ireland in deference to the Good Friday agreement, which is at the core of any Brexit agreement. But governance structures could be tweaked to filter the court’s judgments through bilateral arrangements that allow Downing Street a face-saving new sliver of sovereignty. If that ideological itch is scratched, technical solutions on customs follow.
It is plainly in Northern Ireland’s interests for the UK government to focus on the implementation of the protocol and stop raising doubts about its legitimacy. The UK economy, struggling to bounce back from Covid, does not need any more uncertainty or trade disruption. Those imperatives are understood in Whitehall, where not everyone shares Lord Frost’s fundamentalism. The Brexit minister himself has said he prefers a “consensual way forward", easing the government’s finger from the article 16 trigger as the hazards loom larger.
But a deal requires a change in direction from Downing Street and Mr Johnson does not like to be seen to compromise with Brussels. Nor does he engage with Brexi detail before a crisis forces his hand. That crisis is imminent. If the prime minister thinks article 16 is a lever for strengthening the UK’s position, he is badly mistaken. If escalation is the route advised to him by Lord Frost, he needs new counsel.