Liz Truss cues up a fateful choice of breakthrough or deadlock at country house meeting

UK foreign secretary to host EU negotiator at Chevening in her first talks on post-Brexit breakdown

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss hosted foreign ministers from the GCC countries at Chevening House just before Christmas. Alamy
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

There are two opposing views on what the British foreign secretary might achieve when she once again uses the grandeur of the Chevening country home to hold her first Brexit talks.

Fresh from hosting foreign ministers from the Gulf Co-operation Council member states just before Christmas, Liz Truss will be hoping the 1,200 hectares of Kent countryside will clear the air to move the trade relationship on between Britain and the European Union.

But will Ms Truss be as intractable as her predecessors or more emollient?

If Ms Truss tones down the approach of her predecessor Lord Frost and signals a more co-operative approach” the trip to the countryside could yield a historic breakthrough.

Shortly after the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic is ushered into one of refined rooms at the 17th-century mansion next Thursday, it will become clear if the sparring continues or a deal is achievable.

Some argue the fact that the foreign secretary has been handed the Brexit brief is a sign of London’s inclination to come to an agreement.

“The chances of a deal may increase now with the Foreign Office in charge,” said Prof Federico Fabbrini, director of the Brexit Institute in Dublin. “That might change the dynamics because the Foreign Office has a slightly broader perspective on things from a UK strategic interest, that the EU is not an enemy, it's a partner.”

Liz Truss meets foreign ministers of the Baltic states at Chevening House in October. Getty Images

The department clearly understands Britain has an interest in collaborating with the EU across several areas, including climate, the pandemic, international security and terrorism. “That might make the UK position slightly more accommodating,” he said.

Foreign Office sources certainly want a deal to happen pointing The National to unofficial sources who suggested “rapid progress” and “constructive proposals”.

“She wants urgent progress,” the Foreign Office source said. “She is determined to get this thing done and find a fair, proportionate and durable solution.”

That briefing might be rather aspirational as the main stumbling block to a deal is the Northern Ireland Protocol whose trade restrictions are causing significant cost and disruption to businesses in the province.

For a deal to work there, it will be necessary to convince the loyal British Unionist population who remain unconvinced by both the EU negotiator and the Protocol.

“Maros Sefcovic is totally tone-deaf to Unionism and completely tone-deaf to the reality of what's happening on the ground in Northern Ireland,” said the DUP’s Ian Paisley, MP.

“The EU is telling ambassadors in Ireland that there’s no issues with the protocol, that everybody loves it and then ambassadors are hearing a completely different story from us.”

While the Westminster government can potentially ignore Unionist concerns to get a deal done it cannot disregard the security situation on the ground that could become destabilised.

 Liz Truss will host EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic, above, at Chevening in their first face-to-face talks. Reuters

Assembly elections in the Northern Ireland are due in May, a time when tensions usually increase between the Nationalist and Unionist communities.

A deteriorating security situation, and a threat to the Northern Ireland peace agreement, could both enhance or hinder either side's negotiating position. It is a scenario neither side will want to contemplate.

That aside, the DUP thinks it has some traction with Ms Truss claiming her as one of their own. “Liz prides herself as a very strong Unionist, so I hope that she pulls her Unionist card out of her handbag and uses it,” said Mr Paisley.

But the UK government might consider the bigger picture of restoring EU relations as more important both for security and a UK economy suffering from Brexit and the pandemic.

An indication that this might be Downing Street’s strategy – one that perhaps caused Ms Truss’s Brexit predecessor Lord David Frost’s resignation – will be how assertively the foreign secretary issues the Article 16 threat.

The trigger for scuppering the deal, that can be used by either side, will almost certainly be seen as a declaration of a trade war and the EU potentially retaliating with tariffs on UK goods.

“Article 16 is mostly a tool for negotiations,” said Prof Fabbrini. “It was invoked by Lord Frost to increase leverage, only to discover that this was really a double-edged sword. From a political and economic point of view it allows the other party to retaliate, which would not be in the UK interest.”

The two negotiators will be doing precisely that when they dine at Chevening next Thursday evening and Unionists will certainly want to see dessert peppered with Article 16 references.

“The British government needs to stand up to the British people in Northern Ireland,” said Mr Paisley.

“The foreign secretary needs to tell them that Northern Ireland will not be treated differently to the rest of the UK and invoke Article 16. That's the only credible action they can take.”

It is then a question of whether a politically weakened Boris Johnson wants to avoid conflict with Britain’s closest and biggest trading partner or to placate the million or so Unionists in Northern Ireland.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 4:30 AM