Brussels misses dealing with Michael Gove, EU sources say, as they accuse David Frost of stoking Unionist anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
ord Frost took over responsibility for negotiations with the EU over the Protocol from his fellow Cabinet member in February amid growing fears that Mr Gove was too soft on Brussels.
But one EU diplomat this weekend said: “Gove’s professional, less emotional, approach was the more logical one from where we sit.”
Mr Gove is said to have built up a constructive relationship with Maros Sefcovic, his opposite number at the European Commission.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster even nicknamed Mr Maros “the sausage king” after striking a deal to keep the British version coming into Northern Ireland after Brexit.
But shortly afterwards he angered the EU by unilaterally extending grace periods on customs checks on British goods being exported to Northern Ireland. The commission brought legal action against the UK for violating the treaty and then Lord Frost promptly extended grace periods in other sectors.
A Brussels source said: “The EU pressed the reset button when it replaced the French Michel Barnier with Sefcovic from the traditionally more UK-friendly Slovakia. Maybe it is time the UK did the same thing to clear the air.”
Another two senior diplomatic sources blamed Lord Frost for politicising the disagreements over the Protocol, which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland by introducing customs checks in the Irish Sea.
“Frost wants to ensure that EU-UK relations remain sub-zero to avoid any useful rapprochement in the foreseeable future,” a diplomat said.
Yesterday in an interview with the Irish Independent, Mairead McGuinness, Ireland’s EU commissioner, accused Lord Frost of trying to “wash his hands of” and “shred” a deal he helped to negotiate.
She said: “It just isn’t credible to do that. And I’m sure there are other countries, including the US, that are looking at what the UK is doing and maybe asking questions about the credibility of doing any deals with the United Kingdom.”
The former Brexit negotiator, who agreed to the Protocol, said last week that the checks on British goods were excessive and could jeopardise the peace process.
Brussels said that the checks were necessary to ensure goods met EU standards in case they ended up in EU member Ireland.
Both sides said relations had been far warmer when Mr Gove was in charge.
Sources claimed that Mr Sefcovic had recently felt blindsided and deceived by Lord Frost.
There was a desire in Brussels to de-dramatise the border issues to make it simpler to find workable compromises over the Protocol, which was becoming more likely thanks to Mr Gove, they said.
Instead, Lord Frost’s provocations made it difficult for the EU to compromise, they added.
It was reported that the patience of member states was beginning to wear thin. EU sources said any further unilateral extensions of the Protocol’s grace periods would receive a tough response.
That could ultimately include triggering dispute resolution procedures in the Protocol which could, as a final result, end in tariffs and even the suspension of parts of the Brexit trade deal.
The EU was expected to offer to remove barriers to British medicine supplies to Northern Ireland in a bid to break the deadlock in Brexit border negotiations with the UK next week.