The prospect of Liz Truss becoming prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is viewed by the EU with a mixture of irritation and unease, with European diplomats saying that with the war in Ukraine and problems caused by inflation, the last thing they need it’s a fight with London over Brexit.
As foreign secretary in outgoing Boris Johnson’s government, Liz Truss pushed legislation to unilaterally suspend part of the Brexit deal agreed with the EU and has promised to pass the legislation if she becomes prime minister, a move that will put London on a collision course with Brussels.
Favorite to succeed Johnson in the internal race in the Conservative Party, Liz Truss has few admirers in the community block. Asked last month if she considers French President Emmanuel Macron ‘friend or foe’, she replied: ‘the jury is deliberating’.
“In the current context, it is bizarre that she thinks she can afford such remarks. We are 200% focused on the war in Ukraine, on the strong inflation. We have no time to waste on this,” says a diplomat from Brussels.
Members of Liz Truss’s campaign take her statement as more of a “joke” and do not believe it could have a lasting impact on Franco-British relations. However, a source in the French government notes in her response the mistrust between Paris and London, which blames Macron for not doing enough to stop the wave of migrants crossing the English Channel.
Liz Truss opposed leaving the EU
Meanwhile, members of Germany’s governing coalition are unimpressed by Truss and feel she is attacking the EU to divert attention from the UK’s domestic problems, which Europeans argue would be caused or exacerbated by leaving the EU.
“The new prime minister must be given a chance. But if anyone thinks things can’t get any worse after Johnson, they’re wrong. Many of Mrs. Truss’s statements are unfortunate or erroneous,” says a spokesman for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), Nils Schmid.
Other European diplomats point out that although Liz Truss opposed leaving the EU before the 2016 referendum, she then backed Brexit strongly while in Boris Johnson’s government, so she is unlikely to take a more conciliatory stance on matters in dispute with Brussels.
The United Kingdom effectively left the EU on January 31, 2020, but has since been at odds with the EU over trade clauses in the Brexit deal regarding the province of Northern Ireland.
According to the Northern Irish protocol included in this agreement, this province remains in the customs union and in the EU common market, thus keeping its border with Ireland, an EU member country, open. But London believes that this protocol, which basically creates a border inside the UK, is impossible to enforce.
Therefore, London is preparing legislation that would allow the non-application of the provisions of this protocol, an action considered by the European Commission to be a violation of the Brexit agreement, which is why Brussels has initiated legal actions against London.
However, Truss seems determined to go all the way in adopting the legislative initiative and in addition, she could invoke Article 16 of the Brexit agreement, which includes the safeguard clause that allows unilateral measures to be taken, from the first days after coming to Downing Street.
Tensions could escalate
But such a measure would escalate tensions with the European Commission and could ultimately lead to a trade war in which Brussels and London impose tariffs on each other. “The commission will be in the front line and will give a very firm answer. The Europeans are all on the same firm line”, assures a diplomat from Brussels.
But a member of Truss’s campaign says she hopes the change in British government could lead to a reset in relations with the EU, noting that while she prefers a negotiated deal on the Northern Ireland protocol, triggering Article 16 remains an option. “It won’t be our first option, but we won’t shy away from making difficult decisions”, draws the attention of the quoted conservative politician.
Acting Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned in July after having resisted for a long time in the face of challengers from his own party and scandals overshadowed for a time by the war started by Russia against Ukraine on February 24, he stood out during this time by his firm support for Kyiv, especially through the military aid offered.
The internal competition for his succession to the leadership of the government and the Conservative Party ends on Monday, when the result of the vote of the members of the formation, who had a choice in the final stage of the competition between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, will be known.