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FALMOUTH, England – After securing a relatively Brexit-free zone in his audience with US President Joe Biden, Boris Johnson must have known he couldn’t avoid the issue for the entire G7 weekend.
On the second day of the summit, the UK Prime Minister endured a meeting after a meeting of EU leaders that urged his country to commit to full implementation of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Johnson was clearly dissatisfied with the slap.
“I spoke to some of our friends here today who seem to misunderstand that Britain is one country and one territory,” he told Sky News. “I think you just have to get this in your head.”
The UK is at odds with EU countries and the US over its desire to change a Brexit protocol that would impose controls on UK goods entering Northern Ireland. The protocol is an attempt to maintain the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a key element of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to end decades of violence in the north.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Johnson on Saturday he was ready for a “restart” in Franco-British relations, but stressed the need for Britain to “respect its commitment to Europeans and the framework defined by the Brexit deal”.
An official at the lysée palace stressed that, contrary to some reports, the French president did not go so far as to define this as a “condition” for reorganizing the relationship.
While the heads of state and government of the EU presented a united front in their engagement with Johnson, Macron warned particularly fiercely before his trip to Cornwall that the Northern Ireland Protocol could not be reconsidered.
A Downing Street spokesman said after their meeting that Johnson had “made clear his desire for pragmatism and compromise on all sides, but underlined that protecting the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday) in all its dimensions is of paramount importance”.
Johnson then met for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and together with EU heads of state and government – Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel.
David Frost, the British minister responsible for relations with the EU, attended the meeting with von der Leyen and Michel in socks with the Union Jack printed on them, an unsubtle message that the visitors from Brussels saw loud and clear.
“It was a little strange, as if I was trying to make a testimony,” said a senior EU official. “As if we didn’t know he was from Great Britain. Thank you for reminding us. “
With regard to Frost, Johnson is reported to have said: “He’s not the tough guy. I am.”
The meeting, attended by the three leaders plus four advisors on each side, was tense, the senior official said. Johnson complained about the Northern Ireland Protocol by rattling off statistics on customs controls that the EU side considered unverifiable.
“The known positions have been repeated,” the senior official said, adding that the EU only insisted that the UK accede to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade Agreement.
“We are not against ensuring a steady and smooth flow of goods between the UK and Ireland, quite the contrary, but leaving the internal market has consequences … you cannot have the same access that you had” one Member State, period ” said the officer. “He wants us to find a solution to his problem.”
“They discussed the need to find a solution,” said Johnson’s spokesman at the meeting. “The Prime Minister’s wish at present 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 were discussing the possibility of the UK unilaterally delaying full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, saying that “all options are on the table”.
In interviews on Saturday, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab repeated Great Britain’s accusation that the EU had taken a “purist” approach to the protocol.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “You can be more pragmatic in implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in a win-win manner, or you can be bloodthirsty and purist in not allowing the integrity of the UK to be threatened. “
Raab added on Sky News: “The change has to come from her [European] Side of the Commission. “
It is now less than a month before full controls are due to go into effect that would prevent chilled meat from entering the Irish Sea from the UK – an option that has been known in the UK as a ‘sausage war’
While questions about Northern Ireland dominated the G7 host’s attention on Saturday morning, Downing Street officials stressed that the meetings covered a number of other topics, including the need to counterbalance China and Russia and increase global vaccine supply.
Karl Mathiesen and David Herszenhorn contributed to the reporting.