This UK Government has shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it can maximise friction not only in the country’s trading arrangements with the European Union but also in basic human-level relations with the bloc.

It is not entirely clear the degree to which it realises the damage it is doing with its Brexit folly and fiasco to households and businesses, and the protracted nature of this.

However, it is difficult to comprehend how it would not be able to foresee that intransigence and aggressive posturing will hinder, rather than help, relations with a powerful bloc which, whether the Boris Johnson Government likes it or not, is the UK’s largest export market.

Former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost has wasted no time, since becoming a full member of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet at the start of this month “covering Europe, Brexit and trade”, in rocking the boat again on the EU front.

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However, he and his fellow Cabinet members should reflect on the realities of the situation in the context of Lord Frost’s declaration of his hopes that the EU “will shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving”. To do this, Mr Johnson and his Cabinet should at least for a moment cast aside the ideology of Brexit. This ideology, which has sadly proved so popular with segments of the electorate fuelled by British nationalism and a strange concept that the UK has somehow regained sovereignty it did not have as part of the EU, is a dangerously negative force.

Lord Frost, as chief Brexit negotiator, pursued at the behest of Mr Johnson a hard Brexit which was inevitably going to cause huge disruption not least because of a persistent refusal by the UK, still baffling on the basis of any rational considerations, to accept regulatory alignment.

The UK approach throughout most of the negotiations with our long-suffering EU neighbours appeared, from an external perspective, to be vexatious.

The EU, on the other hand, seemed robust but accommodating, going out of its way to offer the UK a suite of options in the wake of what to many was a baffling decision to leave the bloc.

However, the Conservatives, before negotiations even began in earnest, had themselves ruled out the least-damaging Brexit option: staying in the single market and retaining frictionless trade and free movement between the UK and EU and the associated benefits of immigration.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s “staircase” laid out clearly from the outset the options available to the UK, ranging from the closest of ongoing relationships to the most distant.

The UK chose the latter end of this spectrum, opting for the narrowest of free trade deals and the hardest of Brexits short of a no-deal outcome.

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It is difficult to see how Lord Frost can accuse the EU of “ill will”.

All the way along, it has been the UK which has made its choices.

Former prime minister David Cameron chose to have a referendum on EU membership in the first place, seemingly to settle longstanding and deep divisions within the Conservative Party.

Then there was the lamentable Brexit vote in June 2016.

The Theresa May government then ruled out swiftly remaining in the single market or customs union.

Mr Johnson, after fractious and protracted negotiations with the EU led by Lord Frost, delivered the hardest of Brexits.

The Prime Minister and his Cabinet have seemed worryingly unperturbed as the massive friction Mr Johnson’s narrow free trade deal has introduced for UK exporters in trading with their largest overseas market, following the end of the transition period on December 31, has caused chaos and huge financial loss.

And now we have lead Brexit minister Lord Frost making his “ill will” claim as he hammers home his view that it is fine for the UK Government to act unilaterally to extend the grace period for introducing customs checks on food products and parcels entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The EU has – not surprisingly given the binding nature of the agreements between the two sides on the future relationship including the “protocol” painstakingly formulated to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland – said it will take legal action over the move.

It seems astonishing, given where the current friction is emanating from as well as all that has gone before, that Lord Frost can accuse the EU of “ill will”. He talks about “protecting the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland, making sure they can receive parcels and buy the usual groceries from the supermarket”.

Of course, it is not right that the people of Northern Ireland should see their lives disrupted.

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However, the UK Government has got us into this mess, with its Brexit.

And it had plenty of time to work out how it was going to handle the practical aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol it agreed with the EU. Oh, and it has had a grace period as well, during which it has not covered itself in glory with the huge degree of disruption seen.

It is clearly incumbent on the UK Government to sort out a mess of its own creation, but taking unilateral action and then claiming there is “ill will” on the part of the EU is no kind of solution at all. It is quite the opposite.

As with any negotiation, whether in politics or business, taking contentious unilateral action, without consulting the other party to an agreement and receiving approval, is hardly going to make the other side feel inclined to help you, out of pure goodwill, sort a problem of your own making.

The Herald: Boris Johnson Picture: Frank Augstein/PABoris Johnson Picture: Frank Augstein/PA


And we should not forget how we got here. The UK dismissed continued single-market membership, which would have ensured ongoing frictionless trade, out of hand. It then proved monumentally intransigent on regulatory alignment. Both decisions have resulted in the current shambles. And the persistent refusal to extend the transition period, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, has also brought the UK to this point.

There is no doubt the UK now faces huge challenges in fulfilling its side of the bargain on the Northern Ireland protocol. But that is not the EU’s problem. And the EU is hardly likely to be amenable to helping the Johnson Government out with its Brexit problems if unilateral action is compounded by insults, such as the “ill will” declaration.

Heavy-handedness has not got the UK Government anywhere in minimising the inevitably huge damage from its beloved Brexit. It has been counter-productive.

The Government’s rambunctious patriotism might be going down well with those sections of the electorate which appeared to be motivated at least in part by xenophobia to vote for Brexit. However, it does not bode at all well for those businesses which are, day in and day out, now facing huge challenges in trading with longstanding EU customers.

Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, last week flagged the major woes being faced by the sector she represents. And she highlighted the fact that, previously for Scottish seafood exporters, trading with, for example, France was the same as sending product to Glasgow or London.

It is inevitable, of course, that the UK’s hard Brexit will cause huge economic damage over the years and decades ahead.

The November 2018 forecasts of the Theresa May government showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK gross domestic product in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries. The Tories have since clamped down on immigration.

That said, it remains important to try to mitigate the damage to the maximum extent possible. And the responsibility for this lies with the UK Government, which has brought us to this sorry pass.

Winding up the EU might go down well with Brexit-minded voters but it is hardly likely to help smooth the road ahead in our relationship with our European neighbours. And it will continue to irritate, entirely justifiably, people in the UK who did not want to be dragged out of the bloc. What happens on this front will, crucially, also affect UK goods exporters across a raft of sectors, including businesses in so many crucial industries such as engineering and food, being hit so badly by the Brexit fiasco. It is also likely to have a major bearing on those financial services groups hoping to re-establish closer ties with the EU in some way. Mr Johnson’s narrow free trade deal excludes services altogether.

Exporters in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK have developed good relations with their customers in continuing EU member states over years and decades, based on mutual respect. And they are reliant currently on the patience of these customers.

The last thing we need to see is ill will created by the UK Government.