British Prime Minister Truss leaves Downing Street to pay tributes to Queen Elizabeth II
British Prime Minister Liz Truss leaves Downing Street for the House of Commons to pay tributes to Queen Elizabeth II on September 9 Photo: EPA/TOLGA AKMEN

A pause in an EU-UK battle

Dramatic developments previously expected this week involving the Portuguese diplomat João Vale de Almeida have probably been put on hold for the period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll.

As ambassador of the European Union in the United Kingdom, Vale de Almeida is facing fierce and complex opposition from the UK’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss over the Brexit treaty.

Leaders from every EU country, including Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, sent tributes and messages of condolence to Her Majesty’s family and to the people of Great Britain.

Just before the Queen’s passing, the focus for Ambassador Vale de Almeida was a battle over the Northern Ireland protocol, the most sensitive element of the Brexit deal signed in 1996. Truss has said she is going to unilaterally change part of the protocol.

The European Commission absolutely rejects this and has indicated that any unilateral change, or scrapping the protocol altogether as Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson suggested, could lead to a trade war.

Vale de Almeida, a former ambassador to the United States and later the United Nations, has made it clear that, in his opinion, it would be both “illegal and unrealistic” for the UK to fail to honour its commitment to the Brexit deal.

“It is illegal because it would be a breach of EU, UK and international law. It is unrealistic because it does not provide a real alternative to the protocol.” The government’s approach was probably “on a road to nowhere”.

Should Liz Truss, with the backing of her hard-core conservatives, go ahead, the EU has vowed to impose sanctions that could bring about a complete suspension of the whole Brexit trade deal, a move that Portugal would support but that would have enormous consequences for the UK economy.

The protocol was originally agreed in order to avoid a hard border between NI, a region within the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which, like Portugal, is a firm member of the EU. The protocol also seeks to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in ‘the Troubles’.

In Northern Ireland, leaders of both the majority Sinn Féin party that wants Irish unity and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that wants the closest possible ties with Britain have expressed their sincere respect for Queen Elizabeth. So too has the leader of the Irish government in Dublin.

On the eve of a brief visit to Northern Ireland in her final days as foreign secretary, Liz Truss said she was going to override part of the Brexit divorce deal, a statement that outraged all but NI unionists. It was described by some of those who oppose the idea as “political insanity”.

Vale de Almeida is understood to be highly concerned about the low level of trust between the UK and the EU: “Between our leaders, between all of us that are involved in this relationship.”

Relationships are right on the edge with a desperate need for further negotiations, which both sides claim the other is avoiding at a time when both are facing crippling energy and cost of living crises.

Meanwhile, the NI devolved government is unable to function because in February the DUP thrust it into limbo until the protocol is scrapped. Sinn Féin, as well as the centrist Alliance Party, the third largest in NI – plus the majority of NI citizens who voted against Brexit in the referendum – want the protocol to remain in place.

In his first phone call to congratulate Liz Truss on taking over as prime minister, President Joe Biden, who is proud of his Irish ancestry, appealed to her to abide by the protocol agreement. Not to do so would hinder not only trade arrangements between the EU and the UK, but between the UK and the US.

Liz Truss is tough and likened to the ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher. Her main adversary in Brussels is an equally tough lady, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who will certainly not be bullied into accepting any breach of the internationally binding Brexit trade agreement.

As Ambassador Vale de Almeida has insisted, further negotiations are vital. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, has said that “the call for the UK government to engage with us has been clear for a year.” He added: “A way forward can be found.”

Very privately, Queen Elizabeth would almost certainly have agreed.

By LEN PORT

Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: algarvenewswatch.blogspot.pt