Brexit rains on Boris Johnson’s G7 parade | G7
When Boris Johnson chose Cornwall as the venue for this weekend’s G7 summit, he must have imagined himself waving to world leaders against a blazing blue sky over the French Riviera, while tackling major global challenges the degradation of the climate and the Covid.
Instead, his first face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden on Thursday had to be moved from picturesque St Michael’s Mount to the Carbis Bay conference hotel, due to the Cornish haze – and Brexit was a frustrating priority on today’s agenda.
The summit was meant to mark the arrival on the world stage of a newly emboldened and diplomatically agile UK, no longer a member of the EU, but nonetheless an internationalist.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, a committed Brexiter, recently said that instead of “a big bulky whale” the UK could now be “a more agile dolphin”.
There is also a shift in priorities: Johnson’s recent integrated defense and strategic policy review signaled a new ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, and to that end Australia and India will participate in part of the summit – although the Delhi delegation is doing it remotely.
And for Johnson, this weekend was meant to show the statesman qualities his allies insist he possesses.
But as he tries to reshape the UK in the eyes of the world, Johnson continues to be dogged by the painful details of the implementation of the historic policy he will forever be most associated with: Brexit.
Even Johnson’s most ardent defenders concede that he is not a man of details, or a finisher-finisher. It operates through colorful political gestures: driving a JCB through a wall of polystyrene blocks bearing the message “Get Brexit Done”, for example.
“For the Prime Minister, for Boris Johnson, performance matters more than substance: strutting on the world stage. It’s performative politics, ”says Anand Menon, director of thinktank UK in a Changing Europe. Or as an article by political scientists at the University of Southampton recently called it, “the politics of the spectacle.”
But his fellow leaders do not seem willing to allow him to brush aside the trade dispute over the status of the Irish border.
As Biden arrived by plane on Wednesday, it emerged his administration had warned the UK that it wanted the increasingly bitter feud between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. be resolved urgently.
David Frost, the minister responsible for negotiations with the EU, was belatedly added to the G7 guest list, with Downing Street acknowledging that, like the mizzle, the topic would be inevitable.
The UK is said to be concerned that the deadlock on the implementation of the protocol overshadows efforts to persuade the G7 to unite on other pressing issues.
The EU position that the UK must implement the agreement to which Johnson signed will likely be reiterated forcefully by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, when they meet the Prime Minister.
And while EU protocol spokesman Maroš Šefčovič did not quite say it directly on Wednesday, there is a growing whiff of bad faith – fear that the UK has signed a agreement he never intended to abide by. Von Der Leyen insisted on Thursday that Johnson must abide by the “rule of law”.
Number 10 stressed Thursday that the G7 summit was not on Brexit, and that there were much more important issues, including the climate crisis and the urgency to vaccinate the poorest in the world against Covid. A senior conservative source has optimistically said that Friday was meant to be “Save the World Day”, with recovery from the pandemic on the agenda.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy agreed there were much bigger issues. “This is an important moment. It is perhaps the most historic G7 of a generation, not just because of Covid, but because of climate change. This will be the time when we know if the G7 can lay the groundwork for a Cop26 deal [the climate summit being hosted by the UK] in five months.
Much of the work is done in the run-up to major summits like these, with Briton Jonathan Black, the key figure in the behind-the-scenes G7 negotiations.
But goodwill and trust are essential to oil the wheels of global agreements – and certainly to hold them together when top hotels empty and leaders return home.
There seems to be little going on when it comes to Johnson. He had notable connections with Biden’s predecessor, who had dubbed him “Britain Trump” – although allies insist Johnson simply knew how to “handle” the notoriously unpredictable president. They say this is a skill he can extend to very different leaders as well, including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
Still, Nandy says contacts in foreign ministries around the world have told him they believe the UK has simply left the field in the face of a series of challenges, such as unrest in the Middle East. And she argues that it makes no sense to talk about “world Britain” without having a friendly working relationship with the EU, the vast trading bloc that sits right on the doorstep of the UK.
Johnson will want this weekend to end with smiles – but not handshakes – in sunny Cornwall. “For the Prime Minister, for Boris Johnson, performance matters more than substance: strutting on the world stage,” Menon explains.
But Brexit, which the Prime Minister had hoped to leave behind, could continue to darken his big weekend.