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LONDON — One’s a smooth operator well used to dealing with Brussels. The other’s a Brexit hardliner who’ll be working with a Tory agitator dubbed the “second horseman of the Apocalypse.”
In picking James Cleverly as her foreign secretary and Chris Heaton-Harris as her Northern Ireland secretary, Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss has sent decidedly mixed messages to an EU regime already wary of her next move in the long running post-Brexit row over trade with Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the new appointees could create an interesting “good cop, bad cop dynamic,” an EU diplomat predicted.
In Brussels, the expectation is that Cleverly will undoubtedly be that good cop. As Boris Johnson’s loquacious Europe minister, he frequently pressed the flesh with European diplomacy’s finest, spending substantial time meeting senior European Commission officials, European counterparts and MEPs.
Many came away charmed, seeing in him a friendly character and good interlocutor despite ideological differences. (A long-time Euroskeptic, Cleverly once argued Britain needs “to look different, sound different, and do different things.”)
“He’s got a conciliatory character and common sense, so we hope there will be more flexibility on the issue of Northern Ireland than what many had said during the leadership campaign,” an ambassador from a European country said.
But Truss’ ministerial picks for the Northern Ireland Office — a crucial part of government usually staffed by a balance of personalities, given the delicate politics of the U.K. region — are causing alarm overseas.
Heaton-Harris is a true blue Brexiteer who served as an MEP for 10 years and previously chaired the European Research Group (ERG) of Euroskeptic Conservative MPs.
He’s regarded as capable and level-headed among the party faithful, but his status as a leading Brexit-backer has raised eyebrows given his sensitive new role. Notoriously, he triggered outrage among British academics in 2017 when he sent letters to university vice-chancellors demanding the names of any scholars involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit.”
“He can be relied upon to be quite hardline” a former U.K. foreign office minister said.
“But neither [Cleverly or Heaton-Harris] are wild ideologues,” the former minister added. “They will do what the prime minister wants to do in terms of the negotiation, but we can almost see them in terms of a double act: Heaton-Harris will be very tough line in negotiation, and James will be more of a diplomat.”
But when it comes to Heaton-Harris’ newly-appointed deputy in the Northern Ireland Office, Steve Baker, the reaction among EU allies has been less accepting.
Politicians representing the Irish nationalist side of Northern Ireland’s divide — who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, and support the protocol agreement over which Brussels and London are locked in bitter dispute — greeted Baker’s appointment with dismay. They noted that Baker and Heaton-Harris are both former chairs of the Brussels-bashing ERG.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party MP for South Belfast, Claire Hanna, likened Baker’s appointment to the “second horseman of the apocalypse” and added: “Joking aside, this is completely obnoxious.”
On the other hand unionists welcomed a politician, in Baker, who shares many of their conservative Christian values, including opposition to abortion. “At last we may have an NIO (Northern Ireland Office) ministerial team that really understands unionist concerns,” said a Democratic Unionist lawmaker, speaking on condition he wasn’t identified.
As Truss’ new team settle into their jobs, their statements — and past records — are now being pored over for signs of how the British government will play its hand in the bitter ongoing dispute with Brussels.
Given her former role as foreign secretary Truss is already something of a known quantity abroad, but her next Brexit move remains an open question.
Her proposed legislation on the Northern Ireland protocol — due to face fresh scrutiny in the House of Lords in October — is incendiary in both Brussels and Dublin for effectively allowing U.K. ministers to unilaterally ignore parts of the painstakingly-agreed Brexit divorce deal.
Truss got her first chance to spell out a different approach as prime minister on Wednesday, telling the House of Commons she wants a “negotiated solution” to the row — but warned that this must “deliver all the things” the U.K. has demanded before.
The EU sees Truss’ words as an indication that she intends to press ahead with the bill as planned, the diplomat quoted above said. Another EU diplomat said Truss’ demand “leaves the question: how would this be different from the bill itself?”
Indeed, there’s mounting speculation the U.K. could even harden its position under Truss, by triggering Article 16 of the protocol, a safeguard mechanism that allows either side to temporarily suspend parts of the Brexit agreement. Britain would then implement its own rules while kicking off a long process of formal talks with Brussels on a permanent fix.
A decision to trigger Article 16 could be made as early as next week, a U.K. official said — but could also be avoided if Brussels offers reassurances that the current agreement to postpone checks indefinitely continues.
In Brussels, the European Parliament is already bracing for a worsening of the relationship. MEPs are working on draft legislation aimed at making it easier for the EU to retaliate against the U.K. over likely future breaches of the Brexit deals, including on the protocol.
Yet there’s skepticism in both Brussels and Dublin that Truss really will go nuclear and trigger Article 16 — at least before she’s secured a potentially fraught first meeting as PM with U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration has made crystal clear it wants a negotiated outcome to the Northern Ireland issue.
“We are going to continue in the same paralysis we’ve been since February,” a third EU diplomat predicted.
Politicians in London are more upbeat about the potential of a Truss compromise, however.
“What Liz Truss would surely like to achieve is an agreement, because that would mark her out from [Boris] Johnson,” said a former Conservative foreign office minister. “It would settle the Brexit issue, and if the party was united it would give her a good claim to go to the country and say ‘we’ve got a deal,’ even if there were some elements of the deal that hardliners like [Jacob] Rees-Mogg and [Steve] Baker don’t like.”
Certainly, the expectation is that Truss plans to take a more hands-on approach to foreign policy than her predecessor.
The country’s National Security Secretariat, a unit in the U.K.’s Cabinet Office, is being beefed up and renamed the Foreign Policy and National Security Secretariat, and will have a coordinating role in the Northern Ireland protocol discussions — a sign of power being consolidated at the center of Truss’ government.
‘Nothing new under the sun’
But even as the new PM gets her feet under the table, Brexit has quietly fallen down the list of priorities for both sides, amid the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Truss has already laid out her top governing priorities this week, and Brexit was notable by its absence. And her decision to appoint Tim Barrow, ex-ambassador to Russia and the EU as her new national security adviser, gives a flavor of Truss’ likely focus on the Ukraine war.
In a further hint that Brexit is not exactly top of either side’s in-tray, a high-level political meeting between senior figures from the Commission and the Truss government has not yet been discussed, even as technical discussions between EU and British officials on the implementation of the protocol continue.
Speaking during a parliamentary grilling Wednesday, Heaton-Harris said he believes there is a “fairly obvious landing zone for the negotiations” with the EU over the way the protocol works. “I think everything can be sorted out by negotiations — but we do have legislation which we will use if not,” the new Northern Ireland secretary added.
But few in the EU are holding their breath for a speedy resolution.
“Our hopes during the leadership contest weren’t very high,” the third EU diplomat said. “There’s nothing new under the sun. Nobody in Brussels expects a change for the better with Liz.”
Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Annabelle Dickson in London and Leonie Kijewsi in Brussels contributed reporting.
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