The UK government set a diplomatic collision course with Brussels on Tuesday as Brexit minister Lord Frost accused the EU of being “disreputable” and “disrespectful” to Britain.
Delivering a speech in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon Lord Frost demanded EU leaders effectively tear up the Northern Ireland agreement he negotiated just two years ago and replace it with a new treaty.
And he warned that “fractious” relations with Britain’s European neighbours would not improve unless Brussels did what the UK wanted.
“The EU and we have got into a low-equilibrium somewhat fractious relationship,” he said, adding: “Fixing the very serious problem we have in the Northern Ireland Protocol is a pre-requisite for getting to a better place.”
Lord Frost’s long-awaited speech included long diatribes bemoaning the EU’s treatment of Britain since it left the bloc – as well as explaining at length the problems caused by the deal he personally negotiated.
The extraordinary address came just 24 hours before the EU is set to unveil its own proposals for fixing the Northern Ireland situation, which Brussels claims will be “far-reaching”. The existing protocol has created barriers to trade across the Irish Sea and led to a shortage of some goods supplied from Great Britain.
Lord Frost’s language will do little to dissuade observers in EU capitals who think Britain is deliberately trying to torpedo the EU relationship, possibly for domestic political advantage. Among those is Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, who this weekend warned the UK might be looking to engineer “a further breakdown in relations”.
But the UK’s Brexit minister told his audience: “Viewed from our perspective, we look at the EU and don’t always see an organisation that seems to want to get back to constructive working together.”
Citing a row over vaccines, threats to energy supplies, and an EU ban on shellfish, he said: “Overall, we are constantly faced with generalised accusations that can’t be trusted and are not a reasonable international actor.”
Asked why Britain should be trusted as an international partner when it was tearing up an agreement painstakingly negotiated and implemented just ten months ago, Lord Frost said with a smile: “We always sign treaties in good faith and intend to implement them.”
Lord Frost repeated concerns he had previously voiced about the effects of the protocol, which he said was “disruptive”, “causing serious turbulence” and “damaging large and small businesses” by restrictive trade.
And he said the alleged problems with the agreement he negotiated showed “we were right” – claiming that he had privately expressed concerns about the deal he publicly presented was a success.
Defending Brexit, he added: “To suggest that there is something wrong in people deciding things for themselves is somewhat disreputable, even disrespectful to the British people and our democracy.
Following the speech, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs and Northern Ireland Spokesperson Alistair Carmichael described the government’s approach as “a badly-written farce”.
“The same minister who just months ago was trumpeting the Government’s botched Brexit deal now says it’s intolerable and has to be changed,” he said.
“After all the upheaval British businesses have suffered and all the challenges they face now, they need certainty and support from the Government, not more pointless posturing. The solution to disruption and shortages is working together with our friends and neighbours, not picking needless fights.
“Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have got to stop talking so casually about breaking international law. Every time they do this, it weakens the UK’s standing with our closest neighbours and around the world.”
Baroness Chapman, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister, said the government had failed to “approach the occasion with maturity and in the spirit of cooperation”.
“Lord Frost has effectively asked to rip up the agreement he negotiated – and the Prime Minister signed – just two years ago,” she said.
“For months, Labour has been calling on the Government to drop the rhetoric and make the Northern Ireland Protocol work for businesses and consumers on both sides of the Irish Sea.
“Contrary to moving on from Brexit, senior Tories appear desperate to use a tussle with Brussels to distract from their domestic failures – whether on Covid, the energy crisis, or the needless culling of thousands of pigs.”
She said the UK should secure a veterinary agreement for free movement of goods with the EU in Northern Ireland and take up the offer of a visa-waiver for workers across the creative industries.
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