Will Joe Biden force Boris Johnson’s hand in the Northern Ireland trade dispute?

Joe Biden ordered US officials to warn Boris Johnson against endangering the Northern Ireland peace process during the ongoing EU trade dispute in an “extraordinary diplomatic rebuke” before their first meeting at the G7 today.

According to The Times, Yael Lempert, America’s most senior diplomat in Britain, told David Frost, the Brexit minister, that the UK was “inflaming” tensions in Ireland and Europe by threatening to impose checks on ports in Northern Ireland.

Lempert further cautioned Frost that she had been authorised by the president “to take the step of issuing London with a demarche”, the paper adds, “a formal diplomatic reprimand seldom exchanged between allies”. 

Frost-y welcome

Government minutes of the meeting between Lempert and Frost seen by The Times reveal that the US diplomat spoke about Biden’s “great concern” over Johnson’s stance towards Northern Ireland, adding that Lempert “slowly and gravely read her instructions [from Washington] aloud”.

She told Frost that the issue was “commanding the attention” of the US president and that the US “strongly urged” the government to come to a “negotiated settlement” with Brussels, regardless of whether that meant “unpopular compromises”. 

“Lempert said the US was increasingly concerned about the stalemate on implementing the protocol”, the meeting notes said, continuing that “this was undermining the trust of our two main allies”. She also accused the government of “inflaming the rhetoric” surrounding the trade dispute, asking the UK to “keep it ‘cool’” as negotiations over the impasse continue.

A demarche is a formal communication most often sent to an adversary in order to lodge a protest at the behaviour of a foreign power. Often set alongside a summons for a country’s ambassador, a demarche was sent by the Foreign Office to Belarus following the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger plane in late May.

Lempert’s meeting with Frost will be the “elephant in the room” when Johnson and Biden meet for the first time since the president’s election at the G7 summit in Cornwall this afternoon, Politico’s London Playbook reports. 

The trade dispute with the EU “is still threatening to derail proceedings in Carbis Bay over the weekend”, the site adds. The private intervention by the president may be followed by Biden raising his concerns “in public” during the summit. 

Biden’s “overarching task” during his first foreign trip as president is to “deliver the diplomatic serenity that eluded” US international relations during the presidency of Donald Trump, The New York Times (NYT) says.

But “the goodwill Biden brings simply by not being Trump” may be somewhat undermined by his strong stance against the government’s actions in relation to the UK-EU trade dispute, the paper adds.

Nervy first date

What went on in the room between Lempert and Frost is not exactly clear, with CNN senior producer Luke McGee tweeting that US diplomats are “pushing back quite hard… on the assertion that Frost was given a dressing down on the orders of the president”.

But the reaction of some Conservative MPs is unlikely to defuse the tension, with one Tory Brexiteer telling Politico that “America should remember who their allies are”. Asked how Johnson should respond, the MP added: “Unfortunately he’s so senile that he probably won’t remember what we tell him anyway. Unless an aide is listening I’m not sure he’s going to remember for very long.”

Biden has made clear that he considers the Northern Ireland protocol to be “critical” to preserving peace on the island of Ireland, The Telegraph reports, with his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, saying negotiations must continue to “fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that”.

Sullivan declined to comment on “whether a failure to alleviate the Northern Ireland concerns could jeopardise a transatlantic trade deal”, the paper adds, instead reiterating that “our concern runs very deep on the Northern Ireland issue”.

The Times reports that Lempert offered Frost an “olive branch” during their face-to-face, telling him that Britain accepting EU rules on agricultural standards would ensure that the issue “wouldn’t negatively affect the chances of reaching a US-UK free trade deal”.

But the rebuke by the White House nonetheless “confirms that the Northern Ireland row is souring the lead-up to the G7 summit”, the Financial Times (FT) says, meaning Johnson will have to negotiate “awkward encounters” with European leaders in the coming days.

Seaside diplomacy

The prime minister maintains that Brussels’ demands for checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are “too onerous and are disrupting trade, inflaming tensions in the pro-UK unionist community”, the FT continues. 

But he will also be keen to avoid the issue becoming “a major distraction” during his meeting with Biden, the paper adds, during which the pair will sign a new “Atlantic Charter” that seeks to mimic the wartime cooperation between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to deepen and confirm UK-US relations.

Biden will have his own awkward negotiations to contend with during the three-day summit, with “disagreements over trade, new restrictions on investing in and buying from China and his ever-evolving stance on a natural gas pipeline that will route directly from Russia to Europe” also on his agenda, the NYT says.

And after four years of Trumpism, he is also set to “face European leaders who are wary of the United States in a way they have not been since 1945 and are wondering where it is headed”, the paper adds.

Johnson is unlikely to have a relaxing trip to Cornwall, with “huge pressure” expected to come his way as European G7 members “press the message home” that he has to “relent” over the trade issue, The Times reports. And after Lempert’s intervention, “the blunt American message” is that he “has to find a way to make the protocol work even if that means painful political concessions”, the paper continues.

Having staked so much on the promise of a massive post-Brexit US free trade deal, the prime minister will have one eye on future transatlantic talks. And he can ill afford to create “an impediment” to getting an agreement over the line, the paper adds.



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