Boris Johnson has pledged to do “whatever it takes” to protect the integrity of the UK after his government accused Emmanuel Macron of talking about Northern Ireland “as if it were somehow a different country”.
Brexit tensions flared again at the G7 summit on Sunday as the UK prime minister and foreign secretary Dominic Raab opened up a new front in their war of words with the EU over the post-Brexit trading regime in Northern Ireland.
In spite of pleas by Joe Biden, US president, for both sides to calm the row and find a solution, the G7 summit has led to heightened tensions over the post-Brexit trading regime in the region.
Speaking at a press conference, Johnson said that the UK was “indivisible” and pledged to do “whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK”. He added: “We are all part of one great, indivisible United Kingdom and that is the job of the UK government to uphold.”
Raab, meanwhile, told the BBC: “We have serially seen senior EU figures talk about Northern Ireland as if it were somehow a different country from the UK. It is not only offensive, it has real world effects on the communities in Northern Ireland. It creates great concern and great consternation.”
He asked EU leaders to consider how they would feel if Johnson talked about Catalonia, Flanders or Corsica as if they were — respectively — not fully integrated parts of Spain, Belgium or France.
“We need a bit of respect here and also frankly an appreciation of the situation for all communities in Northern Ireland,” Raab added.
But Macron, the French president, responded that “we all need to stay calm” on the subject of Northern Ireland. He said: “France never took the liberty to question the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.”
“My wish is that we succeed collectively in putting into action what we signed several months ago,” he said at a press conference. “Let’s not waste time with controversies that are created in corridors and back rooms.”
The dispute centres on the different interpretations in London and the EU of the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of Johnson’s Brexit deal concerning trade in the region.
To ensure an open border in Ireland, the UK agreed to carry out some checks on behalf of the EU at ports in Northern Ireland for some goods arriving from Great Britain. The aim was to stop goods passing unchecked, via the open border in Ireland, into the EU single market. Britain claims the EU wants to impose “draconian” checks; the EU insists it is trying to be pragmatic.
The most imminent flashpoint in the dispute comes ahead of June 30 when the EU ban on chilled meat imports is supposed to come into effect in Northern Ireland, blocking the sale of British sausages and minced beef in the region.
During a tense meeting on Saturday, Johnson asked Macron how he would feel if Toulouse sausages were banned from being sold in Paris.
Macron, who was speaking in English, replied that it was a poor comparison. British officials claimed Macron pointed out Toulouse and Paris were part of the same “country.”
An Elysée official clarified that the French president was making a point about geography: “The president said that Toulouse and Paris are in single geographical territory. Northern Ireland is on an island.”
The French official added: “He reminded Boris Johnson that exiting the EU was a British decision and that he had to respect his word.”
But Downing Street seized on Macron’s remarks as an apparent indication that the French president did not recognise that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the UK
Lord David Frost, the UK Brexit minister who attended meetings with EU leaders in Carbis Bay wearing union jack socks, will now resume negotiations with Maros Sefcovic, his opposite number in the European Commission, to try to find a compromise.
The EU has threatened to impose trade sanctions on the UK if it unilaterally extends the “grace period” covering the export of British chilled meats to Northern Ireland beyond June 30.
Johnson denied that the summit had been overshadowed by Brexit. “I can tell you that the vast, vast majority of the conversations that we have had over the last three or four days have been about other subjects.”