The Guardian view on Brexit diplomacy: thaw, not Frost | Editorial

It is usually worth paying more attention to what ministers do than what they say, especially when the subject is Europe. At the start of this week, the Brexit minister, David Frost, told the House of Lords that Britain was unafraid to invoke article 16 – the emergency suspension clause – of the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) that Boris Johnson signed with Brussels last year. Days later, the government deferred the introduction of customs controls on goods being imported from the continent.

The message is consistent to the extent that Lord Frost’s comments and waiving of border regulation both demonstrate that the UK was unready for Brexit on the terms it negotiated. But there is a difference between menacing rhetoric that is meant to assert UK power and policy action that surrenders border control.

Mr Johnson’s government is giving European exporters a freedom of access to UK markets that British exporters do not enjoy when shipping wares the other way. That will put some British businesses at a competitive disadvantage and burden all with uncertainty. It punishes responsible traders who invested in preparation for customs checks, and now wonder why they bothered.

Postponing border checks is a pragmatic measure to avoid any further disruption to supply chains, especially in the run-up to Christmas, by which time it might be harder for the government to blame empty shelves on the pandemic.

Viewed from Brussels, that flexibility looks like a sign that Britain is grudgingly adapting to the facts of life outside the single market. The same is not true of Lord Frost’s article 16 threat. It came across as a pointed riposte to the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, who had visited Belfast a few days earlier and called for a cooling of rhetoric over the Northern Ireland protocol. For the Brexit minister to turn up the heat immediately again shows the limits to pragmatism in Mr Johnson’s cabinet.

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This is a deliberate strategy derived from the view that sabre-rattling gets results with Brussels. Lord Frost is an alumnus of the hardline school of Brexit that thinks the EU will grant concessions if it sees the UK charging eagerly towards a diplomatic conflagration. According to this theory, showing readiness to rip up the TCA will hasten renegotiation over Northern Ireland. Aside from being misguided (wholesale treaty change is not on the EU’s agenda), that plan is appallingly reckless. If Britain starts burning its bridges with Brussels, it risks also setting fire to the Good Friday agreement. Political arson on that scale would bring Washington into the picture – and not on Mr Johnson’s side.

It is easy to see how the UK got hooked on brinkmanship. Brexit is old news in Brussels and would hardly be on EU leaders’ agendas at all unless Britain kept foisting it there. Having Lord Frost as a persistent nuisance is a way to grab attention and get things moving, but it does not change the balance of power between a lone country and a continent. Sabre-rattling over article 16, effectively threatening a full trade war, will not improve the terms of any compromise that is eventually reached. Lord Frost is wasting his time and squandering goodwill in the process.

He is also replicating Mr Johnson’s approach to Brexit before the deal was done. But the treaty is settled. The task now is to rebuild relations that were strained in the years of belligerence before withdrawal was confirmed. Lord Frost is re-enacting battles that the prime minister has fought once before, believing they ended in victory. Under that delusion he is faithfully serving his boss, but not his country.

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