LONDON — Boris Johnson’s combative new Brexit minister is already ruffling feathers in Brussels.
David Frost managed to annoy both the Irish and the European Commission’s top brass with a unilateral U.K. decision to exempt British firms from some bureaucracy when shipping food to Northern Ireland, a move the EU says breaches the Brexit divorce deal.
The policy, announced by the U.K. in a written statement, marks Frost’s opening gambit as Johnson’s new Brexit “super minister,” a role he only just inherited from Michael Gove. As Britain’s former chief Brexit negotiator, Frost had been expected to take on a more behind-the-scenes policy job, but was given the expanded remit in a shake-up announced last month.
The decision Wednesday caused consternation in Brussels, where officials had been expected to resolve ongoing trade disruption in Northern Ireland later this month through a fresh meeting of the EU-U.K. Joint Committee, which oversees the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and its protocol on the sensitive Northern Ireland border.
Brussels is now considering legal action after Britain said it would unilaterally extend grace periods on post-Brexit customs checks at Northern Ireland’s ports for at least six months, and the general mood at the Commission is that the U.K. has ignored successive attempts at engagement.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, responsible for talks with London on the implementation of the Brexit divorce deal, are “angry and deeply worried” at what they see as a provocation and breach of trust by the Brits, an EU official said.
Šefčovič was left perplexed by the absence of a phone call or a message from Frost in advance of the government’s statement. The two did not speak until Wednesday evening, hours after the announcement, although the U.K. said the plan was raised at official level and with the Irish government before it was announced.
Frost, who took over his new role on Tuesday, “didn’t have time before Wednesday to speak to Šefčovič but had time to call [French Europe Minister] Clément Beaune,” the official complained.
“The Commission is very concerned since yesterday,” the same official added. “The first thing Frost has done is unilaterally taking the freedom to do whatever they want.”
It is not the first time the EU has felt snubbed by Britain since it left the bloc. At the last Joint Committee meeting in February, Šefčovič offered to meet again in late March, days before some of the controversial Northern Ireland grace periods are set to expire.
He also offered technical discussions or a meeting of the deal’s specialized committee on Northern Ireland, the official said, but the British government has yet to reply.
At that meeting, Šefčovič did not rule out extending the grace periods, the same official added. But he is said to have told Gove, his counterpart at the time, that the Commission needed the British government to offer an “operational plan” including “solid arguments” for extension in order to persuade EU member states to agree.
Johnson’s official spokesman said Thursday that the U.K. government needed to take action “to address the disproportionate impact that some aspects of the protocol are having on the citizens of Northern Ireland contrary to its intended purpose” and that it gave due notice to the EU.
“We notified the European Commission at official level earlier this week,” the spokesman said. “We also informed the Irish government earlier this week and then Lord Frost last night in his call to Šefčovič obviously discussed this at length and set out the rationale and the reasons for it.”
The Commission remains open to further discussions, but a second EU official said it is up to the U.K. to take the initiative. “I would be very surprised if Šefčovič makes the first move now,” they said.
In parallel, the EU is considering legal action under Article 12 of the Northern Ireland protocol. The Commission could launch an infringement procedure against the U.K., as it did with the incendiary Internal Market Bill last year, taking its case to the Court of Justice of the EU. Infringement procedures tend to drag out, but Brussels could ask the court for interim measures or an accelerated process.
Another option would be to trigger the dispute settlement mechanism in the Brexit divorce deal. The Commission is consulting on whether this could run in parallel to the infringement procedure, the first official said.
As a last resort, the link between the Withdrawal Agreement, which agreed Britain’s exit, and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which agreed the two sides’ future trade ties, could allow the EU to impose tariffs on certain U.K. goods. However, this option may be too politically sensitive and could have long-term repercussions on, for instance, Northern Ireland’s 2024 vote on whether to keep the protocol in place, they added.
Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said Thursday he does not favor legal action against the British government, but argued London’s unilateral move had damaged trust just when both sides were making progress. It would, he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, create “a much more formalized and rigid negotiation process as opposed to a process of partnership where you try to solve the problems together.”
Downing Street rejected Coveney’s characterization. “We continue to work closely with them [the EU] through the Joint Committee process and remain committed to the Northern Ireland protocol, but we want to address those areas where there are issues that have arisen,” Johnson’s spokesman said.
Frost’s move has already angered MEPs. Leaders of the European Parliament’s political groups on Thursday postponed a decision on when to vote to ratify the post-Brexit trade deal, which has still not been formally approved there.
Defending Frost’s opening play on Thursday night, his cabinet colleague Liz Truss told Times Radio: “What we want to do, what Lord Frost wants to do, is sit around the table with the EU, have a proper discussion and make sure that we keep trade flowing between the EU in the U.K.”