Downing Street has denied that Boris Johnson feels “ganged up on” at the G7 summit in Cornwall, after a succession of EU leaders delivered a blunt message that he must deliver on his Brexit promises.
French president Emmanuel Macron told the PM he must “keep his word” over arrangements for the Northern Irish border if he wants a reset of relations with France.
And European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told him there was “complete EU unity” that he must implement the measures he agreed in the 2019 Northern Ireland Protocol, which include a ban on movements of sausages from the British mainland from the end of this month.
Downing Street signalled that the PM was prepared to breach the agreement by extending a “grace period” for chilled meat exports if he fails to achieve a compromise solution by the 30 June deadline, telling reporters that it was only “currently” Mr Johnson’s desire to remain within the bounds of the protocol.
And foreign secretary Dominic Raab took a provocative stance, telling the EU not to be “bloody-minded”.
An EU official said Ms von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel urged Mr Johnson to tone down UK rhetoric on the issue.
Downing Street confirmed that the bitter stand-off was brought up not only by Mr Macron and Ms von der Leyen, but also by German chancellor Angela Merkel in a series of meetings at the Carbis Bay beach resort which were also attended by Brexit minister and key UK architect of the protocol Lord David Frost.
Mr Macron left no doubt that refusal to honour the terms of the deal agreed by Mr Johnson as part of his EU withdrawal agreement will sour relations with Paris.
Speaking in English, the French president told Mr Johnson that their two countries had common interests, but that ties could only improve if the PM delivered on his promises.
“The president told Boris Johnson there needed to be a reset of the Franco-British relationship,” said a source close to the French leader.
“This can happen provided that he keeps his word with the Europeans.”
Speaking after her meeting with the PM alongside Mr Michel, Ms von der Leyen said: “Both sides must implement what we agreed on. There is complete EU unity on this.”
The deal had been agreed, signed and ratified by both Johnson’s government and the EU, she pointed out.
And she added: “The Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland are paramount.”
The PM’s official spokesperson was unable to point to any indication that the EU leaders were willing to display the “pragmatism” demanded by Mr Johnson, but rejected suggestions of a deep cross-Channel rift.
Asked if Mr Johnson felt “ganged up on”, he replied: “No, not at all. They were very constructive discussions on a range of issues and the EU leaders agreed on the need for further talks.”
No threats were made this morning of legal action or the imposition of tariffs on UK exports in the case of a breach of the protocol, said the PM’s spokesperson.
But an aide to Ms von der Leyen told The Independent ahead of the talks that such reminders were not thought necessary as the sanctions were clearly set out in the text of the agreement signed by Mr Johnson.
The UK has said it will keep taking with the EU to find a “radical” way of resolving the issue by the June 30 deadline, but Downing Street made clear that it is ready to breach the protocol with a unilateral extension, telling reporters: “All options are on the table.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said today: “The prime minister’s desire currently is to work within the existing protocol to find radical and pragmatic solutions. That is our immediate focus. We keep all options on the table.
“What we are seeking is a solution. Currently as implemented, the protocol is having a damaging impact on the people of Northern Ireland. We need to find urgent and innovative solutions.”
The row arises from strict EU rules barring movements of chilled meat products into the 27-nation bloc on food quality and safety grounds.
Mr Johnson’s decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea in order to prevent the creation of a hard border with the Republic means that Northern Ireland is covered by the ban.
The UK is resisting EU proposals to resolve the problem by formally aligning food safety and hygiene regulations, fearing that this would prevent future trade deals with countries like the US.
Downing Street accepts there has been no breach of the agreement by the EU, but insists Brussels is imposing the rules in an excessively “purist” way. London argues the EU should simply accept that UK standards are equivalent to those on the continent.
Mr Raab today suggested that the implementation of the ban agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019 would put the integrity of the UK at risk.
The foreign secretary said the protocol was designed to ensure “all communities in Northern Ireland” are protected, insisting the EU must respect “both sides of that pact”.
“They can be more pragmatic about the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that is win-win or they can be bloody-minded and purist about it,” he told BBC Radio 4.
“In which case I am afraid we will not allow the integrity of the UK to be threatened.”