The Truss-Sunak competition leaves Brussels pessimistic about relations with the United Kingdom | Conservative management

European officials are pessimistic about a reset of post-Brexit relations with the UK, regardless of who becomes Britain’s next prime minister in September.

Whether it is Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak who are handed the keys to Downing Street on September 5, Brussels officials have little hope of a rapprochement with the new government.

More than six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, relations have reached a post-Brexit low, as the British government pushes ahead with plans to unilaterally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol, a pillar of the post-Brexit deal. The EU said the plans – led by Truss, the foreign secretary – would breach international law and threatened to tear up the post-Brexit trade deal.

An EU diplomat said there was no suggestion that favorite Truss would abandon the approach she pursued as foreign secretary. “If the UK government follows the plan already laid out, I think it’s fair to say that relations will deteriorate,” they said.

UK and EU officials close to the long-running protocol talks, however, believe there is a window of opportunity for a new prime minister, once the contentious bill goes to the Lords, where it could be debated for months.

An EU official said there was ‘a shadow of hope’ to relaunch talks while the bill was not in government hands, but said no one could say whether a potential Prime Minister Truss would lessen the confrontation she had accelerated as Foreign Secretary.

Expectations are not high. “Campaigns usually just push themselves deeper into difficult positions and radicalize candidates. It’s rare that you find yourself in a more subdued place after a bitter leadership campaign,’ the official said, citing the experience of dealing with Boris Johnson, which failed to live up to the initial hopes of the EU that he would be an ideologically flexible pragmatist.

The European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank closely linked to EU institutions, has concluded that the Brexit process has “permanently damaged” EU-UK relations. “In the short term, a reset of the EU-UK relationship is unlikely, especially as the seemingly intractable issue of the [protocol] remains open,” EPC analysts Emily Fitzpatrick and Fabian Zuleeg wrote in a recent post.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, said Truss began her tenure as foreign secretary as a “geopolitical pragmatist” but was seen as having “quickly pivoted” to a tougher stance. In the eyes of Europeans, she “made an internal calculation around her trajectory which subordinated the interest of Northern Ireland and indeed the relationship with the EU, to her ambition to settle in Downing Street”, did he declare.

“She is going to bring a very big trust deficit into the relationship on day one. I think people are really, really burned by what she did.

EU officials are less familiar with Sunak, but noted reports that he had warned Boris Johnson of the risk of a trade war with the EU as the government debated triggering the suspension clause. Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The former Chancellor, however, raised eyebrows in Brussels when he claimed during a recent TV debate that the Northern Ireland Bill would lead to smooth trade between Britain, Ireland North and the Republic of Ireland – a statement radically at odds with Brexit. agreement for which he voted.

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Another key factor that the EU sees as determining its relationship with the UK is the extent to which the Prime Minister controls his party. While Johnson won an 80-vote majority, his successor may not hold such a dominant position.

“It depends on how strong their support is, how strong their hold on the party is and whether the party can afford another crisis,” EU officials said. “Will all eyes be on the next election and then try not to pile up the problems? Or do they think the best way to do this is to stir up anti-EU sentiment? »

EU officials will be watching the next prime minister’s team closely. The Sunday Times reported that Truss considered his chief of staff David Frost, the former Brexit negotiator, who has totemic status within the Eurosceptic right.

Rahman said he had heard suggestions that Frost was being considered to return to his role as Brexit minister or even become foreign minister in a future Truss government. “If he has a meaningful role and agency on this issue, I think that’s a very negative signal of what she intends to do.”

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