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Liz Truss, “a hawk” in foreign policy who plays her credibility on the Northern Irish file

A follower of very clear-cut positions on Russia or China, the new British Prime Minister is also inflexible with the European Union on the Brexit file, saying she is ready to break the protocol on Northern Ireland. A passage in force which could permanently undermine the credibility of the United Kingdom on the international scene.

She is often compared to Margaret Thatcher, the champion of free trade and ultra-rightist speeches. But Liz Truss also shares with the historic icon of the Conservative Party a vision of foreign policy marked by the Cold War and competition between the great powers.

An approach that some might consider anachronistic but which is less and less debated in the eyes of conservatives since the Russian invasion of Ukraine revealed the West’s naivety in the face of Moscow’s revanchism.

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When the Cold War ended, the West thought the “battle was over,” but in reality “they never stopped fighting,” Liz Truss said in a May interview with The Atlantic magazine.

Now experts expect Truss to continue the work of Boris Johnson, who made the UK one of the biggest arms suppliers to Ukraine, giving full support to kyiv since the beginning of the Russian offensive.

Firmness vis-à-vis Russia and China

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liz Truss has never compromised on the Ukrainian dossier. During a speech delivered in April, the new Prime Minister had even expressed the wish to see Russia leave “the whole of Ukrainian territory”, that is to say also Crimea and the part of Donbass annexed by Moscow. in 2014. Russia must be “inflicted with a strategic defeat”, she insisted in June.

According to Liz Truss, the Minsk agreements carried out in 2014 and 2015 by France and Germany constitute a fundamental error: they would have offered Moscow a blank check for annexation without putting an end to the fighting in the east of the Ukraine.

“She wants to embody a Prime Minister whose voice is heard abroad and I think her positioning on Ukraine pleads in her favor,” said Richard Whitman, professor of international relations at the University of Kent. “It fits perfectly with the image she is trying to imprint, which plays on the nostalgia for the days of Margaret Thatcher.”

If Truss should continue in the straight line of her predecessor on the Ukrainian file, she could on the other hand adopt an even tougher position on China. One of her aides told The Times last week that Liz Truss would officially declare China a “threat” to national security after taking office at Downing Street. “There will no longer be any economic partnership,” assured the new Prime Minister.

According to Liz Truss, the Ukrainian conflict should serve as a lesson to the West on the Taiwan issue. The international community “should have secured Ukraine’s defensive capabilities much earlier” in order to deter any attempt at Russian intervention. “A similar approach” must be considered with Taiwan, concludes the new Prime Minister.

“The UK’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China will harden under Liz Truss. Its approach is very much in line with that of the United States (…) even if Washington has reservations about its positioning in Europe, particularly with regard to Northern Ireland”, analyzes Richard Whitman.

Truss’ dilemma over Northern Ireland

The new Prime Minister wants to unilaterally modify the Brexit agreement concerning Northern Ireland, by removing certain customs controls to facilitate the movement of goods.

The Northern Irish protocol was negotiated between London and Brussels to answer the delicate question of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. It had to meet a double objective: to protect the integrity of the single European market and to avoid a land border which could weaken the peace concluded in 1998.

As part of Great Britain’s departure from the EU, the Johnson government therefore accepted that Northern Ireland should remain de facto within the European market, establishing a customs border in the Irish Sea, with controls and formalities. A situation which complicates supplies for the United Kingdom and provokes the anger of unionists and part of the British political class.

However, the EU argues that the Brexit deal is legally binding and that Boris Johnson’s government of which Liz Truss was a member ratified it in 2020. According to Nicoletta Pirozzi, a specialist in European affairs, Liz Truss is therefore entering to Downing Street in a “difficult situation, where she must both please the Brexit hardliners within her party and at the same time preserve the UK’s credibility internationally, particularly vis-à-vis -to the Biden administration.”

Degraded relations with the EU

It remains to be seen whether, once in power, the Liz Truss Prime Minister will be different from the Liz Truss candidate of the Conservative Party. Especially since the former foreign minister has not always been a fierce eurosceptic – she campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU in 2016.

“It is difficult to know if his very tough speeches on Northern Ireland are sincere or if this is a positioning in the long battle to take control of the Conservative Party, a battle which began long before the resignation of Boris Johnson”, analyzes Tim Bale, professor of political science at Queen Mary University of London.

“I think Truss is much more nuanced than many people imagine,” says Georgina Wright, in charge of the Europe program at Institut Montaigne. “But she tends to differentiate between ad hoc deals and Brexit negotiations. So she might have to work with the EU or member states on certain topics, but one question remains: can she really evacuate Brexit? in these negotiations?

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Moreover, certain statements by Liz Truss seem to bode ill for relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Asked in August at a press conference whether France was a “friend or enemy” country, Liz Truss preferred to kick in touch.

An ambiguous attitude that was hard to imagine at the time of its heroine, Margaret Thatcher, whose doctrine consisted in maintaining a balance between proximity to Washington and friendly relations with European countries.

“Margaret Thatcher was not stubborn just for fun. She built relationships to get something. She won victories at European summits early in her tenure by earning the respect of her interlocutors as a negotiator, not as a s ‘obstinate in refusing dialogue’, tackles Richard Whitman. “The question for Truss is whether she intends to push an agenda or just posturing.”

Article adapted from English by Grégoire Sauvage. The original can be found here.