UK’s Brexit negotiator predicted Brussels would have upper hand

David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit envoy, was hanging tough as trade talks entered the endgame in Brussels this week, but he once felt far less bullish about the likely outcomes of such negotiations.

Writing in a largely forgotten pamphlet just before the 2016 Brexit referendum, Lord Frost warned that in trade talks with the EU “it will be Britain that has to make the concessions to get the deal”.

Talks in Brussels are now in what Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney called “move week”, with both sides waiting for the other to blink. Officials in London and Brussels expect talks to succeed or breakdown next week.

But in what now seem prescient remarks, Lord Frost said in June 2016 that while the EU and countries around the world would want trade deals with Britain, they would have the upper hand and would run down the clock.

“Britain will be demandeur,” he wrote, a reference to the fact that the UK would be the applicant seeking new trade deals after Brexit. The demandeur is usually regarded in trade circles as having less leverage.

“After leaving, the UK will have to renegotiate trading arrangements simultaneously with many major countries, including the EU, in a two-year window,” he wrote.

“There may not be goodwill,” he said, adding that it would be “Britain that has to make concessions to get the deal”. He continued: “True, other countries will want deals too, but they won’t be under anything like the same time pressure and can afford to make us sweat.”

Lord Frost now finds himself in the hot seat facing exactly the predicament he described: Britain is seeking a deal before the Brexit transition period ends on January 1 and the clock is ticking. Lord Frost’s spokeswoman declined to comment.

Lord Frost was writing in a report produced by political consultancy and PR agency Portland Communications, entitled “Britain Votes Leave: What Happens Next”. At the time he was chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association but was writing in “a personal capacity”.

Lord Frost’s understanding of the dynamic of the negotiations has been evident throughout: he has always struck a tough tone, never wavering from his warning that Britain would walk away without a deal if necessary.

“We are working to get a deal, but the only one that’s possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, our trade, and our waters,” he tweeted on Sunday. “That has been our consistent position from the start and I will not be changing it.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted on Monday that “we remain determined, patient, respectful” in efforts to secure a deal. “We want our future co-operation to be open but fair in all areas.”

People briefed on the negotiations said that the sessions in the Belgian capital had so far failed to bridge the divide on key issues such as EU fishing rights in UK waters

“I can confirm that fisheries is still one of the topics where there’s still a great deal of divergence between the positions of the EU and the UK,” a spokesperson for the European Commission said on Monday. 

A UK official concurred, saying: “We remain far apart.”

The two sides are also still at loggerheads over how to protect companies from unfair competition. Issues around Britain’s possible divergence from EU environmental and labour standards, climate targets and carbon pricing remained problematic, EU officials said. 

Officials said that there were no plans to add Brexit to the agenda of a videocall of EU leaders scheduled for Thursday. 

Lord Frost is trusted by Conservative Eurosceptics but he was not always convinced about the merits of leaving the EU single market, arguing in 2016 that the benefits of future trade deals with the US, Japan and India would not compensate for the far greater loss of trade with the EU.

“The orders of magnitude are different and it simply isn’t worth jeopardising access to the single market for the sake of global trade,” he wrote.

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