The UK’s next prime minister may be an even bigger Brexiteer than Boris Johnson.
Liz Truss, the former Foreign Secretary, has won the Conservative Party leadership contest, which will see her take on the post of Prime Minister of the UK after Johnson announced in July that he would step down. Truss defeated Rishi Sunak in a race she was a big favorite to winlargely because she fascinated the right-wing base from the Conservative Party, including: his eurosceptic wing.
How Truss managed to do that is a somewhat remarkable political story. A former Liberal Democrat and stay a supporter, she fully embraced Brexit after the 2016 referendum and became one of its most ardent backers. As Secretary of State in Johnson’s government, she backed up her Brexit credentials with her confrontational attitude towards the European Union.
Her reinvention allowed her to rise to the top of her party, and now the premiership. That rise says a lot about where the British Conservative Party (or Tory) is now: although the UK officially broke with Europe, Brexit has also become a deeply rooted domestic political and cultural war issue. Truss is the epitome of this, which also says a lot about how she can lead – when it comes to the European Union and beyond.
In practice, this could mean that relations between the UK and the EU are even more thorny at a time when the UK and the rest of the continent are dealing with inflation and energy crises and an ongoing war in Ukraine.
“One question that Liz Truss will basically have to deal with is: how far does she want to escalate with the EU?” said Nicolai von Ondarza, leader of the EU/Europe research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). “And for the EU side: how quickly and how strongly do you want to retaliate?”
As the new British Prime Minister, Truss does have the option of a reset, and given the economic and political challenges facing the UK, it may make sense to try it. But Brussels, Paris and Berlin are bracing for a more rocking relationship. Because as a Brexit latecomer, Truss may have even less room for maneuver than the man she replaces.
The convictions of a Brexit convert
In 2016, Liz Truss warned of the dangers of Brexit, saying leaving the EU’s single market would mean industries such as food and drink would face additional costs to market their products. In 2022, during her conservative leadership campaign, she said she… “wrong and I am willing to admit I was wrong” about its previous position.
And members of the Conservative Party, whose votes she needed to win the leadership race, believed her. (Even wilder, Sunak, the candidate she defeated, voted Leave.)
Truss is, to borrow a phrase from the tabloids, a “born-again Brexiteer.” She says she now believes in Brexit because “disruption did not happen”, although numerous indicators show that those disturbances are common.
Truss also used her tenure in government to build her Brexit bona fide. She was Secretary of International Trade in Johnson’s government, the public face of Britain’s post-Brexit efforts to secure trade deals around the world. In 2021, she took on the high-profile position of Minister of Foreign Affairs, where she post-Brexit portfolio with the EU.
Truss’ appointment last year came with some hope that she might be a little more… pragmatic and less ideological about Brexit. But she largely maintained a tough approach to dealing with the EU, especially on issues related to Northern Ireland, the eternal bottleneck of Brexit.
Truss was one of the main architects of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill which:, if it becomes law, would unilaterally rewrite parts of the Brexit deal negotiated by the UK itself. truss is dedicated to pass that bill as Prime Minister, even though the EU and the UK are already in a legal battle over the execution of the deal. During her campaign, Truss has also pledged to: delete all remaining EU legislation by 2023.
As von Ondarza said, “Sometimes converts show the strongest faith.”
Kevin Featherstone, a professorial research fellow at the European Institute at the London School of Economics, said the crackdown on the EU goes beyond actual policy goals and is now a culture war issue. Going after bureaucrats in Brussels is strengthening your populist appeal. Being anti-EU is a viberegardless of the commitment and consequences of the policy.
Truss channels the party’s zeal on these and other key issues of the Tory base: free markets, deregulation, and disregard for cultural ‘wake up’.
“While Boris Johnson was a leading figure in the Brexiteer camp, he had broader appeal, with Liz Truss’s power base firmly within the hardcore Brexiteer section of the parliamentary party, as well as the wider Tory party – and so she has to be much more determined about the EU, but also about other economic issues,” said von Ondarza.
For that reason, it may not have as much political space to act and may not have the domestic political capital to deal with any tensions with the EU. Because Brexit is not really complete yet and relations between the EU and the UK could come under further strain.
Will Truss with the EU hold a Nixon goes to China moment or a trade war?
Yes Yes, they said it was done! But Brexit would always create new problems as trade and travel between the UK and the EU fundamentally changed.
The status of Northern Ireland remains a major source of tension. In short, Northern Ireland is part of the UK and has thus left the EU. But as part of a Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal that ended decades of sectarian conflict, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which is part of the EU) would remain open and free of physical infrastructure. After Brexit, the UK left the EU institutions and was expected to deviate from trade rules, so the UK and the EU had to find a way to conduct customs controls without undoing the peace deal and disrupting a politically sensitive border.
Johnson eventually negotiated a Brexit deal that would mean that some goods from the UK on their way to Northern Ireland would have to undergo checks before getting there, over concerns they could end up in the EU’s single market. That is a source of tension for trade unionists in Northern Ireland (who don’t want much distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK) and for the Conservative government, who say the deal is creating this divide and making trade in the country more difficult. .
But EU says UK is not executing deal as agreed, and launched legal action to make them comply. Meanwhile, the UK threatens to tear the entire deal with this Northern Ireland Protocol Act. Truss has also threatened a formal mechanism within the Brexit deal which can be invoked when “serious economic, social or environmental problems that may persist” arise – something the EU will have to respond to if that happens.
Either way, it’s messy and could get messier, putting the UK and EU on their way to a possible… trade wareven though the continent is already in crisis due to war and rising costs of food and fuel.
The Brexit deal is not perfect, but this escalation is political. The EU has said it is ready to talk, but within the framework of the original protocol; the UK has indicated that it wants more radical changes. “This is a problem related to the political culture, which wins more and compromises less,” said Georg Boomgaarden, the German ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2008 to 2013. “But if we let the experts sit together, have pragmatic and practical solutions to where there is a real problem, most of the problems Truss raised are no problem at all.”
The question is whether the experts will sit down – and will Truss give them her blessing to do so? Featherstone and von Ordonza both mentioned the possibility of a “Nixon goes to China” moment, where Truss, buoyed by her victory and the full support of the Brexiteers, will either make a deal with the EU, or appoint someone who will, and as a victory over the EU, even if it involves some concessions along the way.
This would be a dream for Berlin and Paris and Brussels, but the moment of “Nixon goes to China” may be just that. Experts I spoke to were skeptical that Truss would use domestic political capital for a still-easy target – the EU – especially when the UK faces a host of crises at home, from inflation to labor strikes.
London and Brussels will continue to work together on issues such as security and Ukraine. But Brexit is largely stuck. Economic crises in both the UK and Europe could seriously force the two sides to the negotiating table. At least that’s the hope for the start of Truss’s tenure. As Orchards said, Europe has no interest in Britain becoming another crisis center. “We need Britain,” he said. “And maybe they need Europe. But they can also take quite some time to acknowledge [it].”