MAGGIE PAGANO: Brexit negotiator David Frost believes deal with European Union marks beginning of a moment of ‘national renewal’ for UK
When David Frost was appointed Brexit sherpa and National Security Adviser last July, there was an almighty fuss about the ex-ambassador being a political stooge.
Critics claimed that Frosty was a hardline Little Englander determined to drive through a No Deal. But those who knew him from his Foreign Office days had a more incisive view. One ambassador told me not to underestimate him or his relentless negotiating skills. ‘He may look like a big cuddly teddy bear but he has the mind of a shark.’ He might have added, a white shark.
What Frost and his team have delivered in five months is astonishing: a free trade agreement which both the UK and the EU can claim as a win-win.
Flying the flag: Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost (left), with Michel Barnier
In some ways, Frost’s early critics were right: he is a hard-liner and it’s why he has been able to drive through this deal. From the beginning, Frost has followed Boris Johnson’s red-line which is that Britain could not stay within the regulatory field demanded by the EU’s own negotiator.
What Michel Barnier and Brussels didn’t count on was that Frost would persist with his theological approach, arguing throughout that the UK would walk away and accept WTO rules on arbitration if there was no deal.
Frost got what Johnson – and he – set out to achieve: the freedom to diverge from Brussels’ rules with recourse to an independent arbitration panel. Which incidentally, is standard in every other free trade agreement.
Now comes further hard work: the setting up of a new Joint Partnership Council to resolve any disputes between the UK and EU. And at breakneck speed: it’s to be created by Friday. The council will decide whether either party has broken the terms of the trade deal either via state aid or other regulatory changes which, as Johnson said, might ‘unfairly undercut’ the other.
Here is the irony. France and Germany subsidise their domestic companies by up to three times the amount the UK does.
At the same time, for example, it is the Germans who are rather good at ignoring the EU’s strict environmental rules by continuing to burn cheap and dirty coal. The UK could have legally challenged some of those state payments to EU companies but has not bothered to, partly because of time and cost. And perhaps lethargy? Which is why Barnier and the EU were wrong to fear the UK would use its new freedom to plough more financial aid into companies or reduce rules such as workers’ rights or environmental regulations.
Yet some of the more extreme hard-liners still think the deal is a cop-out, that the UK has not won enough liberty to diverge from the EU’s regulations.
They are missing the point. It’s in the interests of the UK government to keep high standards on industry and not to start spraying state-aid money around lame-duck industries. Watch out for the new state-aid rules being drawn up by the department for business.
While celebrating the deal on Saturday, a rightly proud Frost said this marks the beginning of a moment of ‘national renewal’. But such an opportunity can only happen if Johnson sticks to his other promises: investing in skills, investing more across the regions and ensuring that all of British industry – from goods to services – are of the highest gold standard. Surely the EU can’t complain about that?