Biden-Johnson talks undermined by ‘deep concerns’ over Northern Ireland

Joe Biden will meet Boris Johnson in person for the first time on Thursday, with hopes over a new US-UK ‘Atlantic Charter’ undermined by “deep” concerns in Washington over the post-Brexit situation in Northern Ireland.

Biden’s anxiety was conveyed directly to London earlier this month by America’s most senior diplomat in Britain, who warned the UK to stop inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland over new Brexit trading rules.

Yael Lempert is reported to have issued a démarche, a formal diplomatic reprimand, urging Britain to make “unpopular compromises” if necessary to ease tensions over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol.

Downing Street did not comment but the incident confirms that the NI row is souring the lead-up to the G7 summit, which starts on Friday in Cornwall, and damaging relations with Britain’s main economic partners and allies.

The EU is threatening trade sanctions if Johnson unilaterally breaks promises he made relating to Northern Ireland, and the G7 summit host will face awkward encounters in the coming days with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the EU itself.

According to a UK government note seen by the Times, Lempert told Lord David Frost, Brexit minister, on June 3 that the UK was “inflaming” tensions in Ireland and Europe with its rhetoric over certain checks at ports in Northern Ireland.

The memo said that the US “strongly urged” Britain to come to a “negotiated settlement”, even if that meant “unpopular compromises”. The UK note of the meeting said Lempert urged Britain to keep things “cool”, suggesting Britain had been “inflaming the rhetoric”.

It added: “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 revelation of the meeting confirmed the anxiety felt by Biden over the UK/EU stalemate over the border issue in Northern Ireland. Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, said the president had “deep” concerns over the future of the peace process in the region.

A senior administration official told the Financial Times the US had raised its concerns over Northern Ireland with the UK in a private message ahead of their summit. But the official said the discussion was not directed by the president and “was not heightened”.

Frost and Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president, failed on Wednesday to resolve the row over the operation of the protocol, which in effect introduces a trade border in the Irish Sea. “There weren’t any breakthroughs, there weren’t any breakdowns either,” Frost said.

Johnson claims that the EU’s demands for checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are too onerous and are disrupting trade, inflaming tensions in the pro-UK unionist community.

On Thursday, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, told a press conference in Brussels that she and the European Council president Charles Michel would be holding a meeting with Johnson in Cornwall to discuss the situation. She insisted the EU had “bent over backwards for years” to find a solution that works for everyone in Northern Ireland. 

But she warned that the EU was still seeing “fundamental gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the protocol, as well as unilateral measures disapplying elements of the rules. “We have shown flexibility, we will show flexibility but the protocol and the Withdrawal Agreement [have] to be implemented completely,” she said.

Her message was reiterated by Michel, who told the same press conference that EU member states were expressing “more and more worries” about the situation in Northern Ireland. He warned that the EU was ready to “use all the tools we have in order to make sure that we defend our interest, that we protect the integrity of the single market, and that we guarantee the level playing field.”

The issue is a major distraction for Johnson ahead of his talks with Biden, at which the two leaders will sign a new ‘Atlantic Charter’ — an attempt to evoke US-UK wartime co-operation and the 1941 charter signed by Churchill and Roosevelt that mapped out a new world order.

The new document, to be signed in Cornwall with the British aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales in the background, will commit both sides to defend democracy and free trade — with the subtext of a common front against authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow.

After arriving in Britain on Wednesday evening, Biden told US military personnel that he saw the G7 summit and next week’s Nato summit as critical moments for America to reassert its global leadership after the Trump years.

Biden, who will also meet Vladimir Putin next week, said after arriving at the RAF Mildenhall air base: “At every point along the way, we’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future. ”

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