‘Officials are far from starry-eyed about Europe’ – what new Brexit sherpa David Frost thinks

Former ambassador David Frost has been named prime minister Boris Johnson’s incoming Europe adviser and is likely to take over from civil servant Olly Robbins as the government’s chief negotiator for exiting the European Union. CSW’s colleagues in Dods Monitoring took a look at what he thinks of Brexit talks so far

Photo: PA

By Laura Hutchinson

31 Jul 2019

David Frost joined the Foreign Office in 1987 and worked in a series of posts staring in the British High Commission in Nicosia, and followed by a stint in working in UK Representation to the EU in Brussels as First Secretary for Economic and Financial Affairs in 1993, and then a spell in the United Nations in New York covering human rights and social and economic affairs.

He served as the British ambassador to Denmark from 2006 to 2008 and as director for strategy and policy planning in the Foreign Office from 2008 to 2010, before a spell in the then-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as director for Europe, trade and international affairs, before leaving the civil service in 2013 to become chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association. He then returned to the Foreign Office in November 2016, this time as a special adviser to Johnson until the now-prime minister resigned over the prime minister’s Brexit deal in 2018. Before his appointment to No.10, he was the chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2019.


Views on Europe

Ahead of David Cameron’s re-negotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU ahead of the referendum, he authored a publication for the think-tank Open Europe in February 2015 called “How EU renegotiation will happen and how to pursue it”.

During this report he argues that David Cameron’s reform agenda was “unambitious” as it did not attempt to secure fundamental reform to the EU. In the report he states that:

-           “officials in the Foreign Office and elsewhere are far from starry-eyed about Europe and there is plenty of private Euroscepticism around.”

-           “there is a strong official instinct to do deals and solve problems rather than press at the margins of what is possible”

-           “So politicians need to be clear about the central priorities of the renegotiation and how aggressively they want them pursued”

-           “This will be a disruptive period for the EU and not just because of British demands. To get results, Britain needs to make sure it is seen as working with others to put a failing system into better order rather than as presenting unreasonable British demands disrupting an essentially well-functioning system. But other European countries need to recognise that successful constitutions have balanced firmness and flexibility, fixity and the ability to evolve. Polities that have found that difficult – like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, another organisation underpinned by laws rather than by national feeling – have in the end often disintegrated.”

-           “no-one has seriously suggested that aspirations in the UK’s nations to run more of their own affairs should simply be resisted or met in a purely token way. The EU could look closely at this lesson, and learn from it.”

-           “The most likely timetable is probably still as follows. The Conservatives set out their aims for the renegotiation at the June 2015 European Council. A negotiation of some kind will follow with the results likely set out in a political declaration, perhaps European Council conclusions, at some point between then and mid-2017, with the promised referendum following. Those political commitments can then be implemented in secondary legislation, where necessary, in the usual way. It is suggested by some that, if Treaty change is needed to implement or make any commitments legally secure, it would follow after the referendum, given the impossibility of agreeing and ratifying Treaty amendments in that timescale.”

-           “The reality is that serious political negotiations like this one do not take place primarily in Brussels or in EU fora but take place behind the scenes among a small number of players. That reflects the complexity of doing anything with 28 negotiating parties but, more importantly, the political sensitivity of the issues being discussed.”

-           “Britain’s problem will be consistency of policy and trust. Too many Member states don’t feel they can rely on a British position sticking if it becomes domestically convenient to change it – and Britain has a track record over the years of being very reluctant to subordinate short-run negotiating needs to maintaining the longer-run relationships.”

-           “Britain has to widen the Overton window for EU policy if it is to succeed in this renegotiation. This is not just a political science question: it feeds critically into tactics. Essentially, does Britain set out its aims early on and seek to make radical aspirations gradually seem normal to others, or should it remain discreet about bottom lines and seek to achieve a more limited set of outcomes essentially by persuading Germany and France?”

Since the referendum

As chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2019 he said that “The dire predictions of disaster after the Brexit referendum have not materialised.” He also stated that “As both referendums (EU and Scottish independence) demonstrated, dogmatic positions taken by business can easily be disproved by events”

At London Chamber of Commerce he also stated that “The prime minister's departure was an unavoidable necessity for moving beyond the country's political log-jam. We hope that a new leader can find a constructive way forward to break the impasse in Parliament and deliver certainty about the UK’s terms of exit from the EU. Exit on WTO terms is still a very real possibility on 31 October and whether or not it happens is not entirely in UK hands. The government must ensure it and business are well prepared for this situation and we remain ready to work with them on this.”

He also stated that he was “doubtful” that the now-abandoned cross party talks between the Conservatives and Labour would reach a conclusion "and even more doubtful that any plausible outcome from them would have been good for the longer-term business environment in London and the UK…. Businesses need parliament to find a way through, and in the meantime need continued practical help about no deal preparation – since that outcome remains a distinct possibility, and isn’t just a matter for the UK to decide upon”.

When a Brexit extension to was agreed on 10 April to move the exit date to 31 October: “Many businesses will be relieved that the Government has persuaded the EU to avoid a sudden Brexit tomorrow night.  Indeed, as a former EU negotiator myself, I do not underestimate how difficult it will have been to convince the EU to continue to put their trust in the UK political process.  But last night’s decision comes at the price of even greater uncertainty.  There is no longer a fixed date for our exit from the EU at all.  It now depends on the vagaries of our Parliamentary process and, potentially, on the European Council’s own review of the situation in June.  All this makes planning even more difficult for businesses. “


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