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EU Braces For 'Rocky Few Weeks' As Truss Prepares Northern Ireland Protocol Battle

5 min read

The European Union is bracing itself for a "rocky few weeks" in its relationship with the UK if Liz Truss replaces Boris Johnson as Tory party leader and Prime Minister next week as expected.

The bloc expects Truss to employ a "very aggressive narrative" about standing up to the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol in the first weeks of her premiership, and believes that she may escalate the row by triggering Article 16 of the post-Brexit treaty as one of her first acts in power.

One EU official said "deep shit" awaits this winter, with the bloc preparing to take serious retaliatory action against the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol if it does not change course.

Truss, who is expected to defeat Rishi Sunak in the Conservative leadership contest, campaigned to stay in the EU in 2016, but since then has successfully rebranded as a born-again Brexiteer. 

The firm line she has taken in talks with the EU over fixing the Northern Ireland Protocol, which remain at an impasse, won her the support of numerous senior MPs from the Eurosceptic wing of the parliamentary Tory party, as well as the influential former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost.

This support was bolstered when she led the government move to introduce the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – a contentious piece of legislation that if enacted would see ministers scrap large parts of the treaty that has bedevilled UK-EU relations since it came into effect early last year.

Truss argues that the bill is the only way of restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland in the absence of an acceptable negotiated settlement with the EU.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is currently refusing to form a governement in Belfast with Sinn Fein, the region's largest party, over its fierce opposition to the post-Brexit treaty.

Truss is expected to continue with this hardline approach when she gets into No 10, with several figures on both sides of the Channel telling PoliticsHome that she will be keen to galvanize her party's overwhelmingly pro-Brexit members heading into Tory conference in early October.

"The anti-EU rhetoric will be ramped up to provide some meat to party members at a time when the stories emerging from the economy and health service will be very depressing and damaging," said an ex-Cabinet minister.

The bloc is preparing for Truss to trigger Article 16 of the protocol in her first few days in power, something she is seriously considering, according to a report by The Times last week.

If Truss does invoke Article 16, which would disapply parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, she is expected to justify it as a means of maintaining standstill arrangements for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that are currently set to expire on 15 September.

These grace periods have mitigated the impact of the protocol, which avoided a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland by creating new barriers to east-west trade in the Irish Sea.

A former colleague of Truss told PoliticsHome that she is likely to have very few "moderating" voices around her Cabinet table, with the Foreign Secretary expected to appoint staunch Leavers like Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees Mogg to key ministerial positions if she wins next week. Frost himself has also been heavily linked with a job in her Cabinet.

The same source contrasted Kwasi Kwarteng, the Brexit-voting Business Secretary who Truss is expected to appoint as Chancellor of the Exchequor, with ex-chancellor Sunak who late last year advised Johnson against risking a trade war with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

EU sources are hopeful, however, that James Cleverly, who is widely expected to be Truss' Foreign Secretary, will bring a conciliatory approach to UK-EU relations in the tricky months ahead.

The key question facing Truss is whether she will be willing to risk a trade war with the EU at a time when the economy is already being crippled by soaring inflation and sky-high energy bills.

"She’ll be advised by every official in Whitehall that a trade war is the last thing business wants," said one former Secretary of State.

EU figures are adamant that there will be no negotiations with the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol as long as the Northern Ireland Bill continues its passage through parliament, and that the bloc will be forced to take serious retaliatory action if the legislation becomes law.

This would likely involve the bloc freezing "large chunks" of the post-Brexit trade agreement, according to one official, resulting on tariffs on goods entering the bloc from the UK.

EU figures also acknowledge that they cannot be seen to be soft in its response to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – partly because it would risk giving credence to the argument put forward by Frost and other Brexiteers that taking a hardline approach with the bloc is the best strategy.

A former senior UK official who worked with Truss said she had displayed no signs of backing down over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, however, and that she would prioritise getting it through parliament as soon as possible in the face of opposition from the House of Lords.

They predicted that she would accuse Keir Starmer's Labour of trying to thwart Brexit if opposition peers, as expected, try to dismantle the legislation when parliament returns from summer recess.

Truss will also be under pressure from the European Research Group of staunchly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs (ERG) to stick to her guns. The ERG has played a vital part in Truss' rise to Downing Street and she will be wary of jeapordising that support so early in her premiership.

There is also a school of thought that the Truss government will be willing to risk a trade war with the EU because the economic impact would get "lost" in the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine — akin to how many effects of leaving the EU's single market and customs union in 2020 were masked by the coronavirus pandemic.

The arrival of Prime Minister Truss is very unlikely to thaw UK-EU relations. On the contrary, it looks like yet another icy winter awaits.

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