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Sat. July 20, 2024
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Brexit and Europe: Interview with Lord David Frost

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You were the UK’s Chief Negotiator for Exiting the European Union during Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s premiership. Can you elaborate on your role? What was the greatest success and challenge during your tenure?

I worked with Boris Johnson as his foreign affairs adviser while he was UK Foreign Secretary, and returned with him to 10 Downing St when he became Prime Minister. We had agreed that the role of Chief Negotiator required someone with a political as well as technical understanding of the issues, and therefore someone with a close political link to the Prime Minister. While my formal role was as a “special adviser”, which in the UK system is a kind of political civil servant, I had a unique role as a public figure who made the government’s case in public in the same way as my opposite number in the EU system, Michel Barnier. My job was to manage our negotiations with the EU both in 2019 on the Withdrawal Agreement and thereafter on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement during 2020. Beneath me we assembled ad hoc teams of civil servants and political advisers to do the work. This unusual set up proved effective in the unusual, and politically tense, circumstances of 2019-20. I went on to be a Minister, roughly our Europe Minister, until my resignation at the end of 2021.

The greatest success was delivering on the vote to leave the EU at all, at a time when many forces within British politics were dedicated to stopping it; and delivering a zero tariffs FTA in 10 months when many said it would take 10 years or simply could not be done.

The biggest challenge was undoubtedly in summer and autumn 2019 when we took over negotiations from the Theresa May government, which had conducted them badly, and had agreed a draft Withdrawal Agreement which could not pass parliament because it in effect locked the UK in the EU’s Customs Union and much of the single market for the indefinite future. The problem was that Parliament refused to agree to any other type of Agreement either, but nevertheless passed a law saying we could not leave the EU without an agreement with the EU endorsed by Parliament. This removal of the ability to walk away without an agreement seriously weakened our negotiating hand. In these circumstances, and given how short we were on time before the 31 October deadline for exit, we had to define our objectives as achieving the maximum possible improvement to the previous deal in certain key areas, accepting it would be imperfect, in the interests of finally delivering on the referendum result of 2016 and putting an end to the long constitutional agony. I believe we achieved that, by ensuring that Great Britain (as opposed to Northern Ireland) would not be in the customs union or the single market and had complete optionality about its future relationship with the EU. Northern Ireland had a temporary arrangement keeping it in EU customs and goods single market rules, but with the right to vote out four years later and at subsequent intervals. It is a pity that, initially because of the strain imposed on it by the consequences of the pandemic, the Northern Ireland arrangement has come under huge stress and (in my view) must now be replaced.

What does the concept of sovereignty mean to you in the context of Brexit?

It means the same thing as it means in any other context: that the supreme source of a country’s legal order is to be found within that country and not outside it. It goes closely with democracy: that the citizens of a sovereign country have the right to reorder their polity and their government as they see fit, in line with the popular will. It therefore requires the existence of a demos which can make that democracy and hence that sovereignty meaningful.

We largely achieved the recovery of sovereignty in the Brexit negotiations. Unfortunately, we did not fully achieve this for Northern Ireland, where the EU’s sovereign, the Council/Parliament lawmaking authority and the European Court of Justice, has the final say on customs and goods single market issues. This is not a stable situation. EU member states themselves are of course not fully sovereign. They have ceded significant areas of their own authority to the EU institutions. In theory they can still leave the EU: in practice this is extremely difficult. The consequence of this is that they are not full democracies: citizens of a member state cannot themselves affect outcomes at EU level through their national elections, and there is no corresponding EU demos which could give legitimacy to outcomes at an EU level. Some argue that the benefits of Brexit to the UK have failed to be reaped: the Retained EU Law Act 2023 was watered down; many post-Brexit trade agreements are identical rollovers from when the UK was part of the EU single market; and widespread post-Brexit labour shortages exist. How would you respond to this view? The primary benefit to the UK of Brexit is democracy: the ability to change outcomes at elections and to run the country as citizens and politicians see fit. The consequential benefit is that we can legislate to achieve legal and economic outcomes which are better, in the sense of more flexible and more suited to our own conditions, than those of the EU. I agree that we have not gone as fast down this road as we could have, partly because much of the British establishment is still not reconciled to leaving the EU, partly because of the “drag” of Northern Ireland’s participation in the EU’s single market for goods and related areas. But there is no block on us going faster under a government that wanted to do so.

You have advocated for the UK’s departure from the European Convention on Human Rights. Can you expand on this?

I have reluctantly come to agree that - unless there is significant reform of the Convention at the European level, which seems unlikely - we need either to override parts of the Convention in our national law or leave it. It is impossible to re-establish control over borders and immigration, as we intended to after leaving the EU, without also leaving the ECHR. The effect of ECHR membership is that in significant areas rules relating to migration are in practice set by the ECHR (and by other international conventions as interpreted by the ECHR), not by the British people. That situation is not sustainable.

In recent years, we have witnessed a rise in Euroscepticism not only in the UK, but also across Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the European Parliament by the Identity and Democracy group. Would you discuss the impacts of Euroscepticism on politics in Europe?

Euroscepticism takes various forms across Europe. In the UK, freemarket liberals were often Eurosceptics because they saw the EU as a fundamentally social democratic organisation. The Brexit referendum was carried by a unique coalition of economic liberals, constitutional conservatives, and anti-migration political forces who all for different reasons wanted to “take back control”.

This coalition does not exist in the same way across the rest of the EU. Euroscepticism in continental Europe seems to be driven primarily by anti-migration and social conservative forces, supportive of maintaining a degree of national integrity and decision-taking capability. This was entirely predictable. It was always likely that the EU (that is, the institutions and national politicians who had bought into the Brussels ideology) would run up against resistance from some member states as they tried to impose their anti-borders measures and their post-modern values ideology more broadly.

I believe that this will remain the situation for the foreseeable future: that is, that there will be an uneasy status quo in which there is limited further integration but also no significant return of decision-making to member states, with pro- and anti-Brussels forces constantly waxing and waning within individual member states for largely national reasons. This will inevitably make the EU less than the sum of its component parts, preoccupied by its own internal decision-making and, like the AustroHungarian Empire, focused primarily on preserving its own continued existence and stability rather than contributing constructively to the outside world.

Interview by Joseph Cole

Lord David Frost was Chief Negotiator for exiting the European Union and then a Cabinet minister under the Boris Johnson government from 2019 to 2021. A former diplomat, he was appointed to the House of Lords in 2020. He was Chief Negotiator and Europe adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and then Minister responsible for EU relations, until the end of 2021. He led the negotiations which broke the political deadlock over Brexit, took the UK out of the EU, and put in place the UK / EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the world’s broadest free trade agreement. Lord Frost was subsequently responsible for the post-exit negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and for leading aspects of post-Brexit domestic reform. He was Boris Johnson’s political adviser on foreign policy in the Foreign Office (2016-18), British Ambassador in Denmark (2006-8) and Europe Director in the Foreign Office (2003-6). Lord Frost served overseas in the missions to the EU in Brussels and the UN in New York, and in Paris and in Nicosia. In the Department for Business, he was Britain’s chief trade negotiator and the UK member of the EU’s Trade Policy Committee (2010-13).

Read more about the EU, Europe and Addressing Climate Change in the latest issue of International Affairs Forum.

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