Lord Frost’s Lisbon speech represents the most cogent argument yet for replacing the Northern Ireland protocol. So naturally it has been buried under a slurry of snark, solemn head-shaking and breathless indignation. It is worth stepping back from the noise. Switch off the shouty man on LBC, mute the ‘this is not normal’ people on Twitter, and avoid at all costs the catastrophist-analysis of the academic-activists. You will miss nothing.
In fact, read Frost's speech for yourself. It was meant to send a message about the protocol and it does so directly. The Irish are our neighbours. It is in both our countries’ interests that we maintain and enhance the ties between us..
Lord Frost’s remarks are more thoughtful than the faux-controversies chugged out daily by the machineries of outrage in London and Dublin. They acknowledge ‘the very serious problem we have in the Northern Ireland protocol’ and the impact it is having on people’s lives in Northern Ireland. He pushes back against the idea that the current difficulties are Britain’s doing, and that Brussels is a blameless bystander.
‘We look at the EU and see an organisation that doesn’t seem to want to get back to constructive working together,’ he says. He says that Brussels cornered Whitehall into accepting as ‘a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied’. You need not be a true-believing Brexiteer to recognise some truth in this rendering of recent history.
What marks this speech out is a newfound confidence in the British position on the protocol. In setting out what he considers the iniquities of the current arrangements, and proposing a looser set-up, Lord Frost states something which has become lost of late:
“It is this government that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is not EU territory. It is our responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and that may include using Article 16 if necessary.
Some will hear menace in those sentences. When other countries assert their rights, it’s called self-determination. When Britain asserts its rights, it’s called belligerence. Lord Frost’s comments are simply a statement of fact. So much criticism of Brexit begins from the premise that EU membership was (and remains) the natural order of things, and that the onus is on Britain to justify its curious preference for sovereign self-government. It’s a small thing, but an important one, when Lord Frost says that Brexit is happening ‘because it suits us’. It is an explanation that would be wholly uncontroversial in any other country.
The speech draws on Burke’s contention in Observations on the Present State of the Nation that ‘politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part’. Quoting Burke as Frost does means he can allude to characterisations of the EU project that would be incendiary if stated directly.
Critics say that, in declaring the failure of the protocol he helped draw up, Lord Frost is tacitly admitting he is a failure. I don’t think this is right. The protocol was an expediency entered into with domestic political considerations in mind. It was neither loved nor loveable; it was driftwood with a sliver of a sail. The present times now require a new expediency, one which still isn’t all that loveable but can be tolerated.
Much analysis of the speech, as of Brexit, assumes that Britain is a recalcitrant child and Brussels an admirably patient grown-up. This is a bizarre and babyish way to think about international relations, as though it’s a Disney movie with a goodie and a baddie. Relationships between states and supranational bodies are not about virtue, but about competing and common interests and how to balance the two. Renegotiating the terms of a protocol or other agreement because it is unsatisfactory isn’t a failure of international relations: it is international relations.
There is a yearning for Britain to be taught a lesson. Most Remain voters (of which I was one) would tell you these pathologies are unhealthy. Many people want to see a punishment, one that could have been avoided if we had simply voted to Remain. To think like this is to hold Britain in low esteem but the EU far, far lower.