Brussels 'worried' about Liz Truss as UK prime minister

MEP says Europe fears the new leader will continue with approach adopted by Boris Johnson

Liz Truss, speaking at an event in Norfolk, as part of her campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party. PA
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Diplomats and politicians in Brussels have said they expect their relationship with the UK to deteriorate under Liz Truss’s leadership and expressed alarm at reports she plans to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.

Ms Truss will replace Boris Johnson as Britain's prime minister after being elected as the leader of the ruling Conservative Party.

“We have been eager within European institutions to have a prime minister in the UK who is willing to engage in implementing our agreements between the EU and the UK after many problems and discussions, from Northern Ireland to fishing and other issues”, MEP Brando Benifei, a member of the progressive alliance of socialists and democrats in the European Parliament, told The National.

“We have some doubts that Truss can do that, and we are worried that she might continue the approach of Boris Johnson that was not very constructive with the EU."

Britain's ties with France have been damaged by the UK's attitude towards the bloc, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said on Monday.

Speaking to French radio RTL before Ms Truss' nomination, Ms Colonna said she hoped for a "new start" in relations between the two countries.

The main point of contention between Brussels and the UK is currently the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which passed through the House of Commons in July. It is to be debated in the House of Lords.

The bill unilaterally rewrites the protocol agreed on by Mr Johnson. The EU considers it a breach of international law.

EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen used Twitter to congratulate Ms Truss on Monday.

Seeming to hint at the protocol, Ms von der Leyen said she looked forward "to a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements".

In a statement shared with The National on Monday, David McAllister, the German chairman of the committee on foreign affairs at the European Parliament, also congratulated Ms Truss, but said "facilitating the practical implementation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is of key importance".

Senior EU diplomats told the Financial Times this week that they would refuse to engage in serious talks on reforms as long as the bill, which they compared to a “loaded gun”, was on the table.

Ms Truss is expected to activate Article 16 of the protocol in the coming weeks, which may be done by either side if they believe the agreement in place leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties".

A recent poll conducted on behalf of Queen’s University in Belfast found that support in Northern Ireland for the protocol was growing despite some business owners complaining about an increase in tariffs between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

As part of the Brexit deal, goods are to be checked before entering Northern Ireland to avoid controls at the land border with the Republic of Ireland. There are fears this would cause security concerns in the region.

But the UK has failed to enforce the protocol and the EU Commission has launched several infringement procedures in the past months. Failing to enforce the rules increases the risk of smuggling through Northern Ireland and poses fiscal risks to the EU, the commission said.

Few in the bloc expect the EU-UK relationship to improve under Ms Truss.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said on Friday that the UK’s determination to push forward the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was of “great concern to the EU".

Such unilateral action is “simply legally and politically inconceivable” and is “extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK", he said.

“It is not for the UK government alone to change our bilateral agreement and modify the conditions under which goods can enter the EU's Single Market and reach our consumers,” he said.

Mr Sefcovic said the UK had “not even engaged in any meaningful discussions with us since February”, despite the EU showing “genuine understanding for the practical difficulties in implementing the protocol on the ground".

He said the bloc still wanted the UK to engage in talks, a sentiment that applied to "the incoming UK prime minister and government".

Mr Sefcovic, who has been leading the Brussels side in talks on carrying out the Brexit arrangements, said after Ms Truss's victory that a “positive relationship” between the UK and EU was of "great strategic importance”.

“I stand ready to work intensively and constructively with my new UK interlocutor to foster such a partnership, in full respect of our agreements,” he said.

Mr Benifei said that neither the UK nor the EU had any interest in escalation.

“I’m sure the respect of agreements will prevail in the end,” he said. “But I think we need to be very rigid and clear about not accepting further negotiations around issues that we have already agreed on.”

Updated: September 05, 2022, 2:08 PM