Truss-Sunak contest leaves Brussels pessimistic about relations with UK

·4-min read

European officials are pessimistic about a reset in post-Brexit relations with the UK, whoever becomes Britain’s next prime minister in September.

Whether it is Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak who is handed the keys to Downing Street on 5 September, officials in Brussels have little hope of a rapprochement with the new government.

More than six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, relations have hit a post-Brexit low, as the UK government pushes ahead with plans for a unilateral rewriting of the Northern Ireland protocol, a linchpin of the post-Brexit agreement. The EU has said the plans – led by Truss, the foreign secretary – would breach international law and has threatened to tear up the post-Brexit trade deal.

One EU diplomat said there was nothing to suggest that Truss, the frontrunner, would abandon the approach she has pursued as foreign secretary. “If the UK government follows through with the plan already set out, I think it’s fair to say relations will get worse,” they said.

British and EU officials close to the long-stalled talks on the protocol, however, believe there is a window of opportunity for a new prime minister, once the contentious bill goes to the Lords, where it could be debated for months.

One EU official said there was “a shadow of a hope” for restarting talks while the bill was out of government hands, but said no one could tell whether a potential Prime Minister Truss would dial down confrontation that she had ramped up as foreign secretary.

Expectations are not high. “Campaigns generally just embed further in difficult positions and radicalise the candidates. It’s rare that you end up in a more moderate place after a bitter leadership campaign,” the official said, citing the experience of dealing with Boris Johnson, who did not live up to the EU’s initial hopes that he would be an ideologically flexible pragmatist.

The European Policy Centre, a Brussels thinktank with close links to the EU institutions, has concluded the Brexit process “permanently damaged” the EU-UK relationship. “In the short term, any reset of the EU-UK relationship is unlikely, particularly as the seemingly intractable question of the [protocol] remains open,” the EPC analysts Emily Fitzpatrick and Fabian Zuleeg wrote in a recent paper.

Mujtaba Rahman, the managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, said Truss had begun her tenure as foreign secretary as a “geopolitical pragmatist”, but was seen as having “quickly pivoted” to a more hardline position. In the view of Europeans she “made a domestic calculation around her trajectory that subordinated the interest of Northern Ireland and indeed, the relationship with the EU, to her ambition to move into Downing Street”, he said.

“She’s going to bring a very big trust deficit into the relationship on her first day. I think people are really quite burned by what she did.”

EU officials know Sunak less well, but have noted reports that he warned Boris Johnson against risking a trade war with the EU when the government was debating triggering the Northern Ireland protocol’s article 16 suspension clause.

The former chancellor, however, raised eyebrows in Brussels when he claimed in a recent TV debate that the Northern Ireland bill would lead to free-flowing trade between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – a statement dramatically at odds with the Brexit agreement he voted for.

Another key factor the EU sees as shaping its relationship with the UK is how far the prime minister controls their party. While Johnson won a majority of 80, his successor may not be in such a commanding position.

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“It depends how strong their support is, how strong their grip is on the party and how much the party can afford another crisis,” the EU officials said. “Is there going to be all eyes on the next election and then trying not to pile up the problems? Or do they think the best way to do it is whip up anti-EU sentiment?”

EU officials will be closely watching the next prime minister’s top team. Truss was reported by the Sunday Times to be considering as her chief of staff David Frost, the former Brexit negotiator, who has totemic status on the Eurosceptic right.

Rahman said he had heard suggestions that Frost was being considered to resume his role as Brexit minister or even become foreign secretary in a future Truss government. “If he has a role and any meaningful agency on this question I think this is a very negative signal on what she intends to embark upon.”