Liz Truss: What will the UK's new prime minister mean for Europe?

·9-min read
Liz Truss: What will the UK's new prime minister mean for Europe?

The phrase was short but gave a telling insight into the worldview of the UK's new prime minister.

By replying "the jury's out" when asked whether Emmanuel Macron was "friend or foe", Liz Truss flaunted her born-again, eurosceptic credentials before her appreciative audience of Conservative supporters during the leadership campaign.

Despite the playful tone of the question, the answer cast Truss firmly as the polar opposite of the European Union-loving French president. Brexit fault lines run through the numerous rows between the British and French governments —from fishing rights to cross-Channel migrants, from border chaos to defence and security.

Boris Johnson, then still nominally Truss' boss, intervened in characteristic manner to describe Macron as a "très bon buddy de notre pays".

But his tenure has been marked by fractious and antagonistic relations with France and the European Union as a whole — despite his claim to have got Brexit "done" — and there is little to suggest a radical change in direction from his successor.

Once an enthusiastic backer of the UK's EU membership, Truss transformed after the 2016 referendum to become a passionate Brexiteer.

Fears of 'explosive' escalation in Northern Ireland row

Even before becoming prime minister, Truss had already set the British government on a collision course with the EU. The indications are that once in Downing Street, the impact won't be long in coming.

Launching her leadership campaign, she listed the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill — "in the face of EU intransigence" — among several personal achievements in government.

Now going through parliament, it paves the way for British ministers to rip up part of the Brexit divorce deal covering the UK territory.

"This could prompt a trade war and would worsen already strained UK-EU relations," Anand Menon, Director of the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, wrote in a paper examining the Conservative leadership candidates' policies.

The UK has until 15 September to respond to EU legal action taken over the UK's failure to fully implement Northern Ireland border checks under the Protocol. According to the Financial Times, Truss is considering triggering immediately the Protocol's Article 16 — a supposed last resort clause enabling either side to take unilateral "safeguard" measures to overcome "serious" difficulties.

Truss's allies describe such tactics as an "insurance policy", stressing that she prefers a negotiated solution with Brussels. But Anand Menon argues that even if the Bill is withdrawn, "should the Government insist on a renegotiation of the Protocol it is hard to see how any agreement could be reached".

Lord Peter Ricketts, a former UK ambassador to France and senior Foreign Office official, believes Truss' dual approach — taking action to disapply the Protocol while seeking to negotiate with the EU — will backfire, and simply bring more retaliatory action.

"We will get into a downward cycle of reaction from the EU at a time when we've got a major war in Europe, we've got the biggest cost of living crisis for a generation," he told BBC Radio. "The government should pause this Northern Ireland Bill, because if it's pushed through, it's explosive with the Europeans."

The Northern Ireland Protocol forms part of the Brexit agreement which was negotiated and signed by Boris Johnson and then ratified by the UK parliament and the EU. It imposes checks on goods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland, which remains largely within the EU's ambit, and has the force of international law.

Statistics show Northern Ireland's economy has outpaced that of Britain's since Brexit, and business surveys say most have adapted to the new arrangements, and the Protocol is not among their main concerns.

But Northern Ireland unionists argue that port infrastructure and disrupted supplies weaken ties with the rest of the UK. They have refused to sit in the devolved government while the Protocol is in place. Truss has argued that it threatens the 1998 "Good Friday" peace accord and risks "tearing apart our precious union".

'Reset unlikely' in wider EU-UK relations

When the new Foreign Secretary Truss took over post-Brexit negotiations on Northern Ireland in early 2022, it was welcomed in EU circles.

Her predecessor David Frost had been unpopular and seen as intransigent.

"After Liz Truss came in we had hope, but look how that has turned out,” a senior diplomat told Euronews in July. "She was supposed to be more pragmatic and said she wanted to resolve the issue, but just look at her now — she’s taking a much more extreme approach."

"Even with new leadership, a radical reset of EU–UK relations is unlikely," say analysts at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank, asserting that "Truss embodies continuity" from the Johnson era which left EU-UK relations "deeply fractured".

"Reliant on the Conservative Party’s Eurosceptic wing, it is unlikely that Truss could roll back on her hard-line approach... This will further damage the EU–UK relationship," Fabian Zuleeg and Emily Fitzpatrick wrote in a commentary, referencing a report that the then foreign secretary had been heavily influenced by the zealously pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs.

"More Johnsonian tactics of brinksmanship could be expected as a trade war with the EU becomes more likely. Additionally, by introducing the (Northern Ireland Protocol) bill, Truss seriously damaged her credibility with her European counterpart, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. Any rebuilding of relations would be difficult under Truss’ leadership."

"Looking further ahead, much will hinge on the Protocol. Unilateral UK action via the Protocol Bill would subsume all else (with the partial exception of cooperation over Ukraine) in terms of UK-EU relations. Even assuming that the Bill does not become law, the need to resolve the dispute over the Protocol will continue to dominate the relationship," commented Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe, in its paper on the leadership race.

Cooperation amid 'perpetual Brexit'

Northern Ireland is far from the only area of contention.

As the British government launched a formal appeal against the UK's exclusion from EU scientific programmes, including Horizon Europe, Truss accused the EU of "repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation".

She has vowed to review all EU law still applicable in the UK by the end of 2023, promising in early August to "make it a priority to slash EU red tape" in the financial sector.

"How the Protocol is managed will have the biggest bearing on UK-EU relations but there is also a question as to how effectively the UK and EU can cooperate if they are engaged in stiff regulatory competition," warns Anand Menon.

"As prime minister, she (Truss) would likely be unwilling to compromise with Brussels, continuing the Johnson government’s pursuit of “perpetual Brexit” — regularly and deliberately sparking arguments with the EU to provide headlines for Europhobic newspapers," Adam Harrison of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) predicted recently, based on Truss' record as foreign secretary.

There is some evidence, however, that such a stance would be out of step with public opinion. A study in June by the British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG), an independent think-tank, says that Britons support "a wide range of forms of engagement with the European Union".

"Britons support a wide range of cooperation areas with the EU, with the most popular being to reduce trading barriers, to facilitate freedom of movement of people, research and academia, and both regional and global foreign policy cooperation," says author Sophia Gaston.

Security and defence: 'A missed opportunity'

In an article for the ECFR in January, Isabella Antinozzi — Research Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think tank in London — argued that the EU and the UK should look to revitalise their relationship in policy areas that had avoided heated political debates, such as security cooperation.

As a potential prime minister, she wrote that Truss had "a strong incentive to make a fresh start on the relationship with the EU" and "should understand that security and defence are promising areas in which to find closure in the painful EU-UK divorce".

However, Truss' first speech as foreign secretary the previous month barely mentioned the EU. Nor did the UK's 2021 defence, security and foreign policy review.

Today, Antinozzi says she is pessimistic about any significant improvement of the UK-EU relationship under the new prime minister's leadership.

"Firstly, because she is unlikely to pursue a radically different foreign policy than her predecessor, so perpetual Brexit to be continued. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because she is consistently showing very poor diplomatic skills," she told Euronews.

"Security and defence cooperation, especially since the war in Ukraine, could have definitely served as a functional channel to fix or at least alleviate political squabbles with the EU: they are good areas to start from to deepen or restore political ties. But if the political leadership's identity is imbued with the desire of (artificial) conflict with the EU, there's only so much defence cooperation can do."

Defence cooperation with EU partners would definitely continue, she added, but with individual or small groups of countries. On EU defence initiatives the UK had "not even remotely demonstrated" a willingness to participate.

'Plus ça change...'

The British Foreign Policy Group's assessment of Truss' record as foreign secretary suggests that behind the scenes, not all is as bleak as the public clashes suggest.

"Northern Ireland Protocol aside, with the EU portfolio having been repatriated into the Foreign Office, she has also presided over a modest but not insubstantial improvement of relations with the EU and has forged closer ties with several EU member states during the Ukraine crisis," it said in an analysis of the leadership candidates' foreign policies in July.

In a lengthy statement on Ukraine to the UK parliament in April, Truss said the government was "working on a joint commission with Poland" to help Ukraine's long-term self-defence. She mentioned "constant contact with allies and partners", but uttered not a word on the European Union.

Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform, reported in June after a visit to Paris speaking to officials that "British-French relations are still dire".

"All French fed up that Johnson, Truss and their briefers keep saying 'French soft on Ukraine' when in substance UK and France have [the] same position," he tweeted.

"Truss treats the diplomatic world as if it were the Tory party conf [conference], always playing to the gallery," he quoted one diplomat as saying.

The new prime minister has spent the last two months wooing the overwhelmingly eurosceptic Conservative Party membership but now has to face the wider world.

There are fears in EU circles that the temptation to indulge in more Brussels-bashing to divert attention from overwhelming domestic crises may be too hard to resist.

European analysts may hope against hope that she will undergo some kind of reverse transformation to mirror her Brexit remainer-to-leaver conversion, and embark on a drive towards reconciliation with the EU.

But realistically, most expect EU-UK relations in the Truss era compared to that of Boris Johnson to be a case of "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".