FRight or wrong, David Frost knew how to get under Michel Barnier’s skin. The habit of the British chief negotiator in the negotiating room of dismissing the EU as “his organization”, as if it were a bowling club, squared off with his French counterpart.
“You ask for respect for your sovereignty, David, but please respect ours,” Barnier chided Frost privately. Through many months of conversations, his was never the warmest of their relationships. “I don’t know if they will keep in touch,” admitted an EU source.
But there was a strategy at play: to change conventional wisdom, the UK reasoned, and instill a genuine belief in Brussels that this administration could walk away.
Frost, 55, had recognized the importance of changing the terms of the conversation in Brussels while working at the UK permanent representation in the Belgian capital in the 1990s, and as deputy head of the EU external department at the Ministry of Foreign Relations in London.
Leaving the diplomatic service in 2013 to head the Scotch Whiskey Association, he wrote a brochure on how to negotiate with the EU in the context of David Cameron’s renegotiation over Britain’s membership.
“Make what you want look normal,” he said then. And in 2020 Frost would tell his team: “People get used to ideas.”
Frost – “Frosty” for his team or “the Great Frost” for the prime minister – wanted a deal, albeit a small one. It had extolled the economic value of access to the single market in the past. He had put his negotiating positions through “star chambers” of Whitehall department officials for questioning, warning that ambitions should be kept within reason given Downing Street’s unwillingness to adhere to EU rules.
In his view, this negotiation was not about limiting the damage to trade by reducing EU membership. It was about creating access to the single market on the basis that Britain would make its own laws, unfettered.
The heart of the deal was known, given the UK’s red lines and lack of time for elaborate negotiations: zero tariffs and zero quotas on goods.
British officials believed that a new narrative was key to getting the EU to commit to Downing Street skepticism about the “level playing field” provisions limiting the government’s right to set its own regulatory standards.
“They emphasized sovereignty and the constant recovery of control,” they privately informed EU diplomats after the first round of talks in March.
Or as one British official put it: “They found it very difficult to deal with our stubbornness. It was exhausting. After another session of telling them that we were an equal sovereign and an independent coastal state, we were all saying to ourselves ‘never again’. But david [Frost] then he would have us come in and do it again. “
British negotiators deployed the “Diet Coke maneuver.” “Diet Coke doesn’t produce that many different flavors because of the taste,” an official said. “They make it so you can choose between five different types of Diet Coke and Pepsi. I would give them five different options that were more or less acceptable and make them choose. “
Uncertainty over Britain’s commitment to remain at the negotiating table also deepened early on, and was amplified by defining a no-deal outcome as equivalent to leaving on Australian terms. “It was Trump’s use of alternative facts,” said an EU source.
“The closer he got to the talks, the more he thought: this could end without a deal,” said another. “The closer you are to the action, the more you hesitate.”
Frost himself was an enigma to the EU. A former Foreign Office man, steeped in EU affairs through posts in Brussels and Whitehall, but now a conservative-sitting political figure in the House of Lords, with Johnson promising him another massive advisory role. national security.
A medieval French scholar who had his team wear Union Jack-brand laces: Frost may have been personally underrated, but his bargaining was arrogant.
Following the UK drama mid-October strikeFrost hadn’t been in a hurry to resume the talks even when his demands had been fully met.
Through clenched teeth, Barnier had reiterated his respect for UK sovereignty and the need for a mutual compromise in a speech to the European Parliament. But Frost left Brussels hanging for a while. “The speech was in the morning, but David was very calm and said to wait,” said a UK source.
I wanted to see all dotted Is’s and crossed Ts in new terms of reference for intensified conversations. It would be several hours before he picked up a phone at an office at 9 Downing Street to restart negotiations. “David’s super power is that he is so, so calm,” said a British official.
As a consequence of this bullish focus, the negotiation was marked by public and private disputes. By far the most explosive move came in September with the publication of the domestic market bill, which rewrote the withdrawal agreement and violates international law. “It focused minds on some of the issues in the negotiation,” said a UK source.
For others, the breach of trust was cataclysmic. Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, for whom Frost worked as a private secretary when he was head of the diplomatic service, said the losses were tangible, notably blocking a swath of UK-based financial services from serving the European market. , a unilateral decision of the EU. “That doesn’t seem to have played out well,” Kerr said.
Time will tell. Frost has said that the short-term costs of Brexit will be more than equaled by the long-term benefits, as the UK can chart its own path. Thanks in large part to him, the country has the opportunity to find out.
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