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President Joe Biden’s engagement may help break the Northern Ireland impasse

On the level of optics, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can count his first meeting with US President Joe Biden a success. There were impressive photo ops, an exchange of gifts and a new Atlantic Charter to update the one Churchill and Roosevelt signed 80 years ago.

But if Biden’s goal at the Group of Seven meeting in England was to restore meaningful multilateralism among democratic nations and revive the rules-based order Donald Trump sought to trash, then he couldn’t have been happy with his host’s behaviour. The leaders weren’t there to talk about Brexit, yet the UK’s divorce from the European Union dominated the summit anyhow, overshadowing what turned out to be milquetoast agreements on key issues.

Indeed, the first powwow of democratic leaders since the pandemic will likely be remembered as the “sausage summit” after Johnson publicly berated the EU over the prospect that chilled meat from Britain would be banned from Northern Ireland, which retained the EU’s food safety rules as part of the Brexit deal. 

What ensued shows how flammable the UK-EU relationship has become. Ahead of the gathering, the EU said it was running out of patience and French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune threatened “retaliatory action” if the UK didn’t respect its Brexit agreement commitments. “Nothing is renegotiable; everything must be applied,” warned French President Emmanuel Macron.

Once in Cornwall, Macron seemed to extend an olive branch in the form of an Anglo-French reset provided Johnson carried out what was agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit deal. Johnson swatted away the offer (Macron claimed he was misunderstood) and by Sunday the dispute between the French and British leaders overshadowed everything else. 

So deep are the differences, pitting Johnson’s political imperatives against the EU’s principles, that it’s difficult to see a resolution any time soon. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol was supposed to have resolved the question of how to keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland open, seen as essential for maintaining the peace achieved by the Good Friday Agreement. To protect the EU’s single market, the deal created an effective border in the Irish Sea for customs and other checks that plant and animal products entering Northern Ireland comply with EU standards; and some products (sausages) will be banned outright from July 1.

Johnson and other Conservatives said the protocol wouldn’t change anything for those living and working in Northern Ireland. Instead, it has resulted in trade disruption, uncertainty and aggravated political tensions. Violence, sporadic but never far from the surface, has become a real worry again. 

David Frost, the UK minister responsible for the EU relationship, has said the protocol is probably unsustainable. The new leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, Edwin Poots, wants the UK to scrap it. Already, Britain has unilaterally extended the grace period on implementing checks from the UK mainland into Northern Ireland to October, with the EU taking legal action in response. 

The EU sees this as a matter of principle: If Britain can change the terms of a treaty it signed, or ignore it, what weight does the bloc have in enforcing anything it signs? Both sides have tried to claim the moral high ground.

Any enduring solution to the problem will require some compromise on both sides. The US president’s engagement might help.

Biden’s sympathies here are with the EU — or rather Ireland. Just prior to the G-7, the Times of London reported that Biden’s most senior diplomat in Britain had issued a démarche (diplomacy-speak for reading the riot act) to Frost, warning the UK not to inflame tensions in Northern Ireland.  That’s unusual, though not surprising given how strongly Biden feels about the matter. 

But while the US president has made clear a trade deal with the UK would not be possible if peace in Northern Ireland is threatened, he appears to have also extended a carrot, suggesting alignment with the EU on agricultural products wouldn’t hurt the chances of one.

If true, that removes a major argument for the uncompromising stance Johnson took in pursuing only a minimalist Brexit deal. If agreeing with Brussels on agriculture and food (even temporarily while both sides look for more lasting solutions) would keep the flow of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland undisrupted without jeopardising a US trade deal, it would seem reckless to opt for a trade war instead.

While Biden can’t force a compromise, his involvement makes it harder for Johnson to pursue the course of unilaterally ignoring what was agreed. Still, the fact that Johnson escalated tensions so dramatically shows just how much of the post-Brexit relationship remains unresolved. It also suggests the Johnson-Frost kamikaze approach to last year’s Brexit talks, is back. Johnson may feel he has no choice for now, given hardline Brexiters in his party also oppose the lockdown restrictions he is expected to extend further on Monday as the Delta variant of the virus proves harder to contain. 

It’s hard to know how much the acrimony affected the summit’s outcome. The G-7 leaders clearly underperformed expectations on vaccine donations, climate change and even China. As the host, Johnson has to bear some responsibility for that.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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