Leaders in ‘complete harmony’ on Belfast Agreement, says Johnson after Biden talks

UK prime minister plays down dispute over Northern Ireland protocol ahead of G7 summit

 British prime minister Boris Johnson and US president Joe Biden, speak as they look at copies of the Atlantic Charter during their bilateral meeting in Carbis Bay, Britain. Photograph: Hollie Adams/EPA

British prime minister Boris Johnson and US president Joe Biden, speak as they look at copies of the Atlantic Charter during their bilateral meeting in Carbis Bay, Britain. Photograph: Hollie Adams/EPA

 

The US, UK and EU had “complete harmony” on finding solutions to uphold the Belfast Agreement, British prime minister Boris Johnson has said after holding talks with US president Joe Biden in Cornwall.

“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Johnson said. “And I think what’s interesting is Northern Ireland is a fantastic place and it’s got amazing potential. It is a great, great part of the UK.”

Asked if Mr Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, Mr Johnson said: “No he didn’t.”

“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Mr Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground,” Mr Johnson said.

The leaders met ahead of a summit of G7 leaders in Cornwall amid a dispute with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol, which requires checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit.

There were signs on Thursday that talks between London and Brussels on the protocol are close to collapse, with the EU warning it will retaliate with trade sanctions if Britain unilaterally breaches the agreement again.

Mr Johnson hailed Mr Biden as “a big breath of fresh air” on Thursday because he wanted to work with London on a huge range of issues ranging from climate change and Covid to security.

“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Mr Johnson said of the talks with Biden. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together. We went on for about an hour and 20 or so. It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects.”

Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Mr Biden would “see through the spin and fog” from London on the Northern Ireland protocol and would urge the British government to implement the deal it agreed.

Mr Coveney was speaking in response to reports that the US government had privately rebuked the British for endangering the peace process over the protocol.

“I’m not surprised at the strength of feeling that we have got from the US President,” Mr Coveney told reporters in Dublin this morning. “I think he has a capacity to see through the spin and the fog and the media articles in the British media about the protocol, and [he] simplifies the message: a deal was agreed, for good reason. Now it needs to be implemented.”

The London Times reported on Wednesday night that Mr Biden ordered US officials in Britain to issue a diplomatic rebuke to Mr Johnson’s government for endangering the peace process over Brexit.

The paper said that Yael Lempert, America’s most senior diplomat in Britain, invited Mr Frost to a meeting last week at which she accused the government of “inflaming” tensions with its opposition to checks at ports in Northern Ireland.

Earlier Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the intervention by Mr Biden in the disagreement between Britain and the European Union as “significant” and said that it represented “a lot of common sense”.

Mr Martin told Newstalk Breakfast that it was very clear from the intervention by Mr Biden that peace on the island of Ireland was an “absolute imperative”.

“The intervention from Joe Biden’s administration is significant, but also from my perspective, represents a lot of common sense. I think the US are saying sort out this issue, we’re very clear from a United States perspective that the Good Friday Agreement, peace on the island is an absolute imperative and that the protocol is a contributor to that. You’ve signed up to it, adhere to it.”

Mr Martin also said that he was confident there would not be checks on EU goods entering Northern Ireland. When asked if Mr Johnson could be trusted, Mr Martin said: “I think we can ultimately do that.”

DUP leader Edwin Poots told reporters in Belfast on Thursday afternoon that the comments from the Biden administration were “not well informed”.

“We’ve seen riots on the streets in Northern Ireland which we hadn’t seen for many years and I think the president would do well to reflect on what the reality is,” he said.

“The east/west relationship has been harmed, barriers have been put east/west, that is unconstitutional and the issue that regulation is being made on behalf of Northern Ireland in Brussels without representation is something that is against democracy, and the United States of America was always a country which wished to have democracy right around the world, so I would like to think that the United States of America would recognise and respect the democratic rights of people in Northern Ireland to have some say over the people who are making the laws that are actually applied to them.”

EU remedial measures

Meanwhile, European Union leaders are to press Britain to implement the checks between Britain and Northern Ireland that were agreed in Brexit negotiations at a meeting of the G7 in Cornwall, warning the bloc is prepared to take “remedial measures” to ensure compliance.

The EU had “bent over backwards” for years in negotiations to find a solution to reconcile Brexit with the need to avoid a hard border, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference ahead of the summit of major powers.

But she described “fundamental gaps” in the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, including a failure to build infrastructure and give officials access to IT systems.

“We found the one and only solution,” Ms von der Leyen said. “We have a treaty on that, a Withdrawal Agreement, it has been signed by both sides. Pacta sunt servanda,” – agreements must be kept.

“The withdrawal agreement has to be implemented completely,” Ms von der Leyen said. “We will discuss that in a trilateral meeting in Cornwall together. We are determined to do everything to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland”

If Britain continues not to apply the agreement it had signed, the EU is prepared to resort to “remedial measures” and take the next steps in dispute mechanisms that are set out in the deal, Ms von der Leyen said. These can include fines, and the imposition of retaliatory tariffs on trade.

European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs the council of 27 national EU leaders, described growing concern among the capitals over Britain’s non-implementation of checks and suggestions that London may unilaterally choose not to comply with restrictions on imports of uncooked meats into the Single Market.

“Member states in Europe are expressing more and more worries about the current situation, because it’s indeed fundamental, it’s paramount to implement what we have decided. This is a question of rule of law,” Michel told journalists.

“We will use all the tools we have in order to make sure that we defend our interests, that we protect the integrity of the single market and that we guarantee the level playing field.”

Mr Coveney also said there was flexibility on the EU side on the implementation of the protocol and the EU wanted to compromise on many of the areas causing concern. But he criticised the behaviour of the UK’s chief EU negotiator, David Frost.

“When we have Lord Frost visiting Northern Ireland and saying the protocol is not sustainable, that is a problem, when he was the person who negotiated the protocol,” he said. “And of course the British Government agreed to an implementation plan for that protocol last December. So we all need to show flexibility and pragmatism here.”

He said that there was “no stronger advocate than me on the EU side for flexibility and pragmatism in terms of how the protocol is implemented” but that the situation needed partnership between the two sides “not a stand-off”. – Additional reporting: PA