18 February 2020 | UK NEWS
The Government’s chief Brexit negotiator and adviser, David Frost, set out the fundamentals of the UK’s negotiating position with the EU, including several major red lines, in a speech last night at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels.
With frequent references to such figures as Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Whig politician and philosopher whose thinking has shaped much of small-C conservative thinking in the UK since his day, Mr Frost told his audience that Britain would not accept high-alignment ‘level playing field’ provisions as part of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement under any circumstances, saying that this would defeat the point of Brexit.
In particular, he said that this view was not “some clever tactical positioning”, but instead that: “It is central to our vision that we must have the ability to set laws that suit us – to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has. So to think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing.
“That isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project. That’s also why we are not going to extend the transition period beyond the end of this year. At the end of this year, we would recover our political and economic independence in full – why would we want to postpone it? That is the point of Brexit.”
While praising the early foundations of what over time became the EU, referring to it as a “noble project”, Mr Frost noted that its evolving structures had never really been perceived in the same way in Britain as on the continent, with the UK instead viewing them as more “abstract” and “technocratic”, lacking the notion more familiar to Britons that “governance is pretty deep-rooted in historial precedent”. He added that he felt “much of this still does not seem to me to be understood here in Brussels”.
Indeed, his comparison was that: “Britain was more like a guest who has had enough of a party and wants to find a way of slipping out. By 2016 we had already found our way to the hallway without anyone really noticing at the party. It was only when we picked up our coat and waved goodbye that it felt like people said ‘oh, are you going?’ as if they haven’t realised what had been happening.”
Mr Frost also picked up on the relatively gloomy economic forecasts of Brexit studies commissioned by the last UK Government, noting that: “many Brexit studies seem very keen to ignore or minimise any of the upsides, whether these be connected to expanded trade with the rest of the world or regulatory change – often assuming the smallest possible impacts from such changes while insisting on the largest possible effects through changes in our relationship with the EU.”
He then went on to suggest that, if the positions were reversed, the EU would not be willing to accept alignment with the UK’s regulatory standards purely in order to minimise trade friction with its market, while adding that there was no reason to assume the UK would lower the overall level of its own standards, despite diverging in methodology from the EU in certain areas. This, he said, the UK would be able to do more nimbly than the EU, given that it would have only its own interests to look out for, and he cautioned the EU side against “fear of the future”.
Mr Frost began to wrap up his speech by asking the EU to attempt “genuinely” to understand that: “countries geographically in Europe can, if they choose it, be independent countries. Independence does not mean a limited degree of freedom in return for accepting some of the norms of the central power. It means independence – just that. I recognise that some in Brussels might be uncomfortable with that – but the EU must, if it is to achieve what it wants in the world, find a way of relating to its neighbours as friends and genuinely sovereign equals.”
In closing, he also noted that the original Treaty of Rome in 1957 was signed after only 9 months of negotiations, stressing that he believed it was eminently possible to strike a good deal on the future relationship in the time remaining until the end of the year and adding that “we can do this quickly”.
The full text of the speech can be read here. It comes amid reports of a comment by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, that “we are going to rip each other apart” on trade issues.
Naturally, whether the more optimistic UK view or the more pessimistic EU view will ultimately prevail remains to be seen. We will bring you further updates on the progress of the UK-EU future relationship negotiations as they come in.