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12 November 2021

The UK government has blinked over Brexit. The question is: why?

Has Boris Johnson’s administration retreated in the face of EU opposition – or is it just conserving its strength?

By Stephen Bush

The British government has given way in the latest rounds of talks over the Northern Ireland protocol, the treaty which maintains an open border on the island of Ireland.

That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the statements released by David Frost, the UK’s de facto chief Brexit minister, and by Maros Sefcovic, his counterpart in the European Commission. The British government had been widely expected to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either party in the agreement to suspend it in the event of “severe difficulties”, with many expecting the UK to do so as soon as Cop26 ended.

Instead, today’s talks between Frost and Sefcovic have ended with the latter welcoming the UK’s “change of tone” over the use of Article 16: that is to say, the UK sounded less inclined to trigger it today than it has previously.

The British government is of course making all the noises you’d expect: talks are still ongoing, next Friday is not intended to be the deadline and all avenues are still on the table. But the reality is that, today at least, the UK has blinked, changing its approach and pulling back from talking about Article 16. The question is, why?

Dig a little deeper, and there are three justifications you’ll hear from across the government and Whitehall.

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The first is that the British government can retreat because Frost’s combative approach has achieved exactly what it needed to: the European Commission has put forward a series of useful measures that address the serious problems with the protocol. The Frost doctrine – that only bellicosity and a willingness to go all the way gets results in negotiations with the EU – has been proved right, and now the UK can bank its victory and change its tone.

It’s true to say that the European Commission has put forward a raft of fixes to the protocol. We can’t prove the hypothetical either way: some credit the change in approach as a reflection of effective and less belligerent lobbying by Northern Ireland’s civic and commercial institutions rather than anything Frost has done or threatened to do.

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But in a way, it doesn’t really matter if the Frost doctrine has only succeeded by coincidence. What matters is if the British government believes that the Frost doctrine has worked, and believes that for the Frost doctrine to keep working, the European Commission needs to feel pressure.

The second justification is that, essentially, the Paris agreement on climate change is worth a mass: that triggering a diplomatic row and potentially a trade war when the Cop26 talks are at a crossroads simply isn’t worth it. The Northern Ireland protocol can wait until after, not during, talks that will shape humanity’s future. 

The third justification is a stronger version of the second: that preventing the already existing regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain from getting any thicker is simply not worth the political and economic risks of a trade war at home or the diplomatic costs of getting into a further spat with the European Union. 

Which is it? That you can hear all these rationales reflects a broader truth: that across government, different ministers, officials and advisers are in very different places about the UK’s strategy and approach. For some, it is a successful strategy for winning concessions from the EU that has already borne fruit. For others, it is a successful strategy that has a way yet to run – but that confrontation needs to be parked until after Cop26: the UK has blinked now in order to come back stronger after a successful climate summit. For others, the strategy hasn’t worked and isn’t worth the candle. 

Which view is closest to Boris Johnson’s, who ultimately decides how far Frost should go? No one can say they know for sure: at least not yet.

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