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Fri 17 September 2021

The G7 summit further wrenched Britain away from our liberal democratic allies, says Mike Buckley

The G7 held last week in Cornwall was a failure. The results are best summarised as ‘talk over action’; in many ways a fair summary of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

In almost every domestic policy area during the pandemic – including social care, levelling up, protecting public health and the economy – the Prime Minister’s actions have failed to match his words. His failure to secure G7 action on the global vaccine rollout, the climate crisis or anything else of note adds a grim international dimension to his incompetence. 

One reason for Johnson’s failure to build a sense of shared endeavour was the barely submerged anger from US President Joe Biden and European leaders at his failure to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement he struck to resolve the need for a border between Britain and the European Union.. 

The EU, not unreasonably, expects the UK to fulfil its obligations under the Protocol. Instead, Johnson has unilaterally delayed implementing some measures (notably a ban on the export of chilled meat) and is threatening to delay still further. More arguments are inevitable as grace periods expire, requiring more checks. 

The EU has given Johnson two options; either implement the Protocol or agree to align with EU food and agriculture rules in full (the Swiss model) or in part (following New Zealand and Australia). 

Johnson refuses to align, arguing to do so would be incompatible with Brexit. The ‘equivalence’ option he favours – whereby the two sides agree their standards are the same in merit if not detail – is unacceptable to the EU, which argues that since the UK wants to diverge, its future standards may fail to meet those of European nations. The result is stalemate. 

By the end of the G7, French President Emmanuel Macron could barely conceal his anger. “We put rules in place, a protocol and a future trade deal. All we want is for it to be respected. Johnson knew there would have to be checks. Respect of sovereignty in Northern Ireland cannot mean not respecting the sovereignty of 27 [EU] member states.”

The division between Johnson, EU leaders and Biden – who made his position in support of the Protocol and his concerns for the Good Friday Agreement clear – lies on a single foundation: EU leaders and Biden respect the rules based international order, while Johnson does not. 

This reality – long evident in Johnson’s approach to Brexit – was made stark at the G7. It puts the UK in a new position on the world stage. Formerly trusted and seen as an exemplar of order and the rule of law, Johnson is showing that our word can no longer be trusted. 

What happens next matters in practical terms. If the UK refuses to comply or align, the EU will retaliate. European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič says Brussels will react “swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure the UK abides by [legal] obligations.” The final Brexit deal allows either party to “suspend obligations” in the event of breaches of earlier agreements. That means trade sanctions for breaches of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, which contains the Protocol.

It matters too for international relations and perceptions of the UK as a reliable international partner. Failure to resolve the Protocol would be a firm sign the UK is determined to take a different approach to the EU and, just as importantly, the US.  

Joe Biden chose the Protocol as the issue on which to issue his first démarche. In diplomatic terms this was unprecedented – a démarche is a formal complaint issued to a foreign government, in most cases an opponent. Instead, Biden chose the UK, accusing Johnson of “inflaming” tensions. 

Johnson should not underestimate how much this matters to Biden. The core of Biden’s outlook, says former US diplomat Eric Bradburg, is that democracy is fragile. Defence of democracy and the rule of law at home and around the world guides his administration. Success on the Protocol would also, says Brett Bruen of Global Situation Room, prove that “America is back” to a sceptical Europe. 

He will find too that Biden genuinely cares about the Irish peace process. Johnson’s reported belief that Biden would put the US-UK ‘special relationship’ before the Good Friday Agreement was mistaken. There will be no US trade deal if the peace process is imperilled. 

To his credit, Biden offered carrot as well as stick. David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit Minister, argues that the UK cannot align to EU standards not for “ideological” reasons but to enable trade deals with other countries. But the only country that would require the UK to be unaligned is the US. Biden’s statement that UK alignment to EU food rules would not imperil a future US-UK trade deal is a big commitment; exactly the intervention to make were he dealing with a rational actor. 

The problem is he is not. What the EU and Biden are yet to accept is that Johnson long ago decided to conduct international relations by different rules. Tom McTague’s revealing profile says Johnson believes Britain has been “living out a foreign policy of a world that has gone.” Beijing and Moscow have shown “the limits of the rules based order.” Britain can no longer afford to be a “status quo power” trying to resurrect a defunct system. “The world is moving faster – we have to move faster with it.”

For Johnson, therefore, Brexit does not just mean freedom from EU rules, it means freedom to ignore the international rules based order that is the basis of Šefčovič and Biden’s appeals. 


Global Britain?

This leaves the UK in a strange position on the world stage. We remain a member of the G7, G20, UN Security Council and a host of other agreements and forums. Yet under Johnson we are increasingly moving away from the values and norms that are their foundation. 

Biden and the EU will not allow Johnson to continue to ignore international law forever. If he continues to refuse to comply, the EU will respond with tariffs and other retaliatory measures. The UK economy – and our reputation – will suffer. 

Biden will refuse to open negotiations for a trade deal. Just as importantly, he will continue to shift his attention from the UK as a global partner to the EU and its leading member states. Johnson’s stated desire to restore the UK as a world power risks backfiring spectacularly. 

Johnson may yet come to his senses. Economic pain from retaliatory tariffs may be too much to bear. Loyalist anger and accompanying violence in Northern Ireland may grow to a point where Johnson has little choice other than surrender. The desire for a good working relationship with Biden – with whom he is reported to share concerns over climate change, Russia and China – may prove too strong. 

Tragically for Northern Ireland – and frustratingly for the EU and Biden – Johnson is just as likely to stick to his guns. He believes ongoing fights with the EU help to keep his Leave voter coalition together, at least for now, while a lack of domestic opposition to Brexit harms means he faces little public scrutiny. 

But his lack of belief in the rules based order is misplaced. The G7 proved that. This week’s NATO summit will repeat the point, given it is majority US and EU, while other members such as Turkey – itself in a customs union with the EU – have no interest in destabilising relations. 

“This isn’t yet,” writes Chris Grey, “like the Suez moment, when the US brought naked diplomatic, political and financial pressure to bear upon the UK. For now the US is pressing for a ‘negotiated settlement’ that does not ‘imperil or undermine the Good Friday Agreement’”. 

But the situation may escalate. The EU has proved throughout the Brexit process its commitment to Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. The US and Biden personally have done the same. Johnson has picked a powerful set of enemies. If he refuses to back down it seems certain he will be on the losing side. The implications for the reputation of the UK, for the future of Brexit and Johnson’s premiership could hardly be more grave. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’

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