Boris Johnson will face new pressure from EU leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall to resolve post-Brexit tensions in Northern Ireland, after the British Prime Minister refused to agree to a plan to reduce checks at borders in the region by aligning with EU food rules.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has sought to reassure Johnson that agreeing to mirror Brussels rules on food and animal controls would not hamper prospects for a future UK trade deal. and the United States. But Downing Street insists the idea has not been launched.
Biden and Johnson discussed Northern Ireland’s trade rules during their first face-to-face meeting on Thursday ahead of the three-day G7 summit which begins on Friday.
The British leader told the BBC that Biden did not express concern over his stance on the issue during Thursday’s meeting.
But Johnson’s meetings with EU leaders at the summit might not be so diplomatic. He will meet on Saturday the President of the European Council Charles Michel and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen on the sidelines of the summit.
Johnson will also hold bilateral meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He met Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Friday.
Macron, seen in London as leading a harder line on the Northern Ireland issue, warned before the G7 that it was “not serious” to reopen the Brexit deal.
“I think it does not matter to want to review in July what we finalized after years of debate and work in December,” said the French president at a press conference Thursday. “It’s not a problem between the UK and France, it’s a problem between Europeans and the UK.”
Although Biden was said by Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, as being “deeply” concerned about the state of the peace process in Northern Ireland, the issue did not dominate the president’s meeting with Johnson, British advisers said.
Instead, the British Prime Minister said the UK-US relationship was not just ‘special’ but ‘indestructible’, describing Biden’s arrival on the world stage – after four years of presidency of Donald Trump – like “a breath of fresh air”.
The US urged Johnson and the EU to reach a compromise on how best to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of Johnson’s Brexit deal that covers the issue of borders in the region.
The protocol leaves an open border on the island of Ireland – the Republic of Ireland is part of the EU – but puts in place controls on certain products transiting from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in case they would eventually enter the EU’s single market.
Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic again urged Britain this week to agree to a ‘Swiss’ model, in which the UK would align with Brussels’ food and agricultural controls to drastically reduce the need for border inspections at Irish Sea ports.
The United States pushed Britain to accept this proposal. Yael Lempert, the top US diplomat in Britain, suggested this month to David Frost, Britain’s Brexit Minister, that such a deal would be backed by Washington.
She said Biden would make sure that “does not negatively affect the chances of reaching a US-UK free trade agreement,” according to a UK memo from the meeting reported by The Times. Downing Street has not denied the note’s existence, but US officials insist the June 3 exchange was not “uplifted” in tone.
Britain has argued it needs flexibility to set its own rules – especially in the sensitive area of agriculture – to strike trade deals with countries with different standards, including the United States.
But Johnson’s allies have said Britain could never accept being bound by Brussels rules. “It’s a question of principle,” said one of them. “We are not going down this route.”
British officials have insisted that if Britain enforced EU farming rules, it would complicate a trade deal with the US given the power of the US farm lobby in the US Congress.
But Biden has shown little enthusiasm for a first trade deal with the UK in any case. “It was hardly discussed,” said an official briefed on the president’s talks with Johnson. “It’s not a priority for him.
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