EU gives Johnson a reason to be constructive on NI protocol

Cost to the UK of failing to find a way forward will be more than a few sausages

Boris Johnson opened the G7 summit in Cornwall on Friday by telling his fellow leaders that it was a meeting that had to happen so that they could learn the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to make sure we don’t repeat some of the errors that we have made in the course of the last 18 months or so and we put in place what is needed to allow our economies to recover,” he said.

Nobody in the room had made as many errors in the pandemic as the British prime minister or presided over as many deaths from coronavirus, but his fellow leaders were too polite to point it out. Like him, they want the summit to be a success and their sherpas have been working hard to prepare a joint statement on health, vaccines, the economy, the environment and foreign policy.

For Joe Biden, the first in-person meeting of the leaders of some of the world's biggest industrialised democracies is an opportunity to reassert the United States' leading role in the multilateral order after the Trump years. The leaders of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada and the European Union share a desire to project the power of their shared values and commitment to democratic norms.


Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol are not on the agenda, they will not appear in the concluding leaders' statement and have not been discussed by the sherpas preparing the summit. But the issue will figure in Johnson's bilateral meetings on Saturday morning with German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and in his trilateral meeting with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel.

In sending a demarche, the US state department was signalling that Lempert's message to Frost was not a cosy chat among friends

Brexit minister David Frost is in Cornwall and he will join Johnson at some of Saturday's meetings. But Downing Street said the prime minister does not expect an "immediate solution" to the dispute over the protocol to be found during the G7.

Borne fruit

Nobody does. But the European diplomatic strategy of bringing the conflict to a head in advance of the summit had already borne fruit before any of the leaders arrived in Cornwall in the shape of a US demarche to the British government.

Neither Washington nor London denied a report in the Times this week that Yael Lempert, the US charge d'affaires in Britain, delivered the demarche to Frost on June 3rd.

A demarche is a diplomatic message from one government to another, often a rebuke and seldom directed at close allies. The US state department is one of the most formal diplomatic services in the western world and, in sending a demarche, it was signalling that Lempert’s message to Frost was not a cosy chat among friends but an expression of concern on behalf of the US government.

“Lempert said the US was increasingly concerned about the stalemate on implementing the protocol. This was undermining the trust of our two main allies. The US strongly urged the UK to achieve a negotiated settlement,” according to a British government minute of the meeting quoted by the Times.

She said that if Britain agreed to a veterinary deal that meant following EU agrifood rules, Biden would ensure that the matter “wouldn’t negatively affect the chances of reaching a US-UK free trade deal” and she asked how the US could be helpful in brokering a deal with the EU over the protocol.

Rather than being drawn into a sausage war on the eve of the loyalist marching season, the EU's initial response will be slow and measured

Lempert's meeting with Frost, who was joined by Johnson's foreign policy adviser John Bew, came less than two weeks after Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, spent two hours at Shannon airport with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Coveney told RTÉ's Prime Time on Thursday that it was clear that the Irish Government's message on the protocol had got back directly to the White House, adding that he asked Sullivan to convey the same message to London.

“In fact, we did more than that. We asked him to and then we followed that up with a note on the meeting to give a very clear Irish perspective on what we thought the points of tension are and how we can move beyond them. And I think that was received well,” Coveney said.


Washington’s message to London on the protocol was delivered so emphatically ahead of Biden’s arrival in Cornwall that there was no need to drive it home further, at least in public. And, after recent warnings from the EU that any further unilateral action on the protocol could trigger trade sanctions, Brussels is now signalling a more graduated approach.

If Britain unilaterally extends grace periods at the end of this month for chilled meats such as sausages and minced meat coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the EU will not immediately respond with overwhelming force. Rather than being drawn into a sausage war on the eve of the loyalist marching season, the EU’s initial response will be slow and measured, leaving open the possibility of tariffs and other retaliatory measures later.

The purpose of Europe’s diplomatic activity ahead of the G7 has not been to rain on Johnson’s parade or to immediately resolve the conflict over the protocol but to change to its advantage the terrain on which it is contested. It has achieved this by increasing the cost to Johnson of taking unilateral action and of pursuing his current approach to relations with the EU.

Johnson and Frost can, if they choose, continue to reject the EU’s offer of a veterinary agreement that would eliminate 80 per cent of the checks on the Irish Sea border and unilaterally extend the grace periods which end on June 30th. But to do so will not only risk economically-damaging sanctions from the EU but opprobrium from Washington at a time when the transatlantic relationship has never been more important to Britain.

Ahead of Saturday’s meetings with European leaders, Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister was focused on finding “radical and urgent solutions within the protocol”. That marks a shift from Frost’s rhetoric about the protocol being “unsustainable” and could be a prelude to a more constructive approach in the crucial weeks ahead.