Boris Johnson gets an EU earful on Northern Ireland – POLITICO

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FALMOUTH, England — Having secured a relatively Brexit-free zone in his audience with U.S. President Joe Biden, Boris Johnson must have known he could not avoid the subject for the entire G7 weekend. 

On the summit’s second day, the U.K. prime minister endured meeting after meeting of EU leaders pressing him on his country’s commitment to fully implementing the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. 

Johnson was clearly unhappy with the ear bashing.

“I’ve talked to some of our friends here today who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory,” he told Sky News. “I think they just need to get that into their heads.”

Britain is at odds with EU countries and the U.S. over its desire to alter a Brexit protocol that imposed checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland. The protocol is an attempt to preserve the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a key element of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to end decades of violence in the north.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday told Johnson he was ready for a “reset” of Franco-British relations but underscored the need for the U.K. to “respect the commitment it made to the Europeans and the framework defined by the Brexit agreement.”

An Élysée Palace official stressed that, contrary to some reports, the French president did not go as far as setting this as a “condition” for a reset of the relationship.

While EU leaders presented a united front in their engagement with Johnson, Macron had been particularly fiery in his warnings ahead of his trip to Cornwall that the Northern Ireland Protocol could not be revisited.

A Downing Street spokesperson said after their meeting that Johnson “made clear his desire for pragmatism and compromise on all sides but underlined that protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions was paramount.” 

Johnson subsequently met for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and jointly with EU leaders — Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel.

David Frost, the British minister in charge of relations with the EU, attended the meeting with von der Leyen and Michel wearing socks imprinted with the Union Jack, an unsubtle message that the visitors from Brussels saw loud and clear.

“That was a bit weird, as if to make a statement,” a senior EU official said. “As if we didn’t know he came from the UK. Thanks for reminding us.”

Referring to Frost at one point, Johnson, reportedly said: “He’s not the tough one. I am.”  

The meeting, which included the three leaders plus four advisers on each side was tense, the senior official said, with Johnson complaining about the Northern Ireland Protocol by rattling off statistics about customs controls that the EU side regarded as unverifiable.

“The known positions were reiterated,” the senior official said, adding, that the EU was simply insisting the U.K. adhere to the Withdrawal Agreement and the trade accord.

“We are not against insuring a steady flow and a smooth flow of goods between the United Kingdom and Ireland, far from it,  but stepping out of the single market does have its consequences … You can’t have the same access that you had as a member state, full stop,” the official said. “He wants us to find a solution to his problem.”

“They discussed the need to come up with a solution,” was Johnson’s spokesman’s take on the meeting. “The prime minister’s desire currently is to work within the existing protocol to find radical changes and pragmatic solutions. That is our immediate focus.”

He would not elaborate on whether they discussed the possibility of the U.K. unilaterally delaying full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, saying that “all options are on the table”.

In interviews on Saturday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab repeated the U.K.’s accusation that the EU has taken a “purist” approach to the protocol.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “They can be more pragmatic about the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that is win-win or they can be bloody-minded and purist about it, in which case I am afraid we will not allow the integrity of the U.K. to be threatened.”

Raab added on Sky News: “The change must come from the [European] Commission’s side.”

There is now less than a month until full checks are scheduled to come into force, which would prevent chilled meats from crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain — an eventuality that has already been dubbed the “sausage wars” in the U.K.

While questions on Northern Ireland dominated the G7 host’s attention on Saturday morning, Downing Street officials were at pains to emphasize that the meetings had encompassed a number of other issues, including the need to act as a counterweight to China and Russia and increase the global vaccine supply.  

Karl Mathiesen and David Herszenhorn contributed reporting.





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