EU urges UK to uphold Brexit deal but Johnson defiant

LONDON: European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic (left) leaves Europe House, the headquarters of the EU delegation in the UK in London yesterday. – AFP

CARBIS BAY, United Kingdom: European leaders yesterday delivered an ultimatum to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep his word on Brexit to resolve a row over new trade arrangements in Northern Ireland. But Johnson defiantly restated his calls for Brussels to compromise, urging a more pragmatic approach after talks between the two sides broke down earlier this week. The UK and the European Union signed a last-gasp trade deal in December last year, just weeks before the former’s departure from the European single market and customs union.

A separate agreement-the Northern Ireland protocol-was also signed to govern trade in the UK province, which shares the country’s only land border with the bloc. But London has so far failed to implement full checks on goods heading into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain-England, Scotland and Wales. And it has indicated that it will extend a grace period on the delivery of British chilled meat products at the end of this month, prompting EU threats of retaliatory measures.

The row-and the spectre of what the UK press has dubbed a “sausage war”-has dogged the showpiece G7 summit in southwest England. Johnson yesterday morning held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council.

All told him directly to abide by the terms of the divorce deal he signed to take the UK out of the European Union after nearly 50 years of membership. “Both sides must implement what we agreed on,” said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel. “There is complete EU unity on this.” A source in Macron’s office said he explained to Johnson in no uncertain terms that the UK should “keep its word”, effectively dismissing UK calls for flexibility. But Downing Street said Johnson had told the leaders he would not change tack.

Double down
“The prime minister expressed confidence in the UK’s position in the Northern Ireland protocol,” a statement said after his meeting with Macron. “He made clear his desire for pragmatism and compromise on all sides.” With Merkel, he said there was a need “to maintain both the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the UK”. And with von der Leyen and Michel, he told them the UK was “committed to finding practical solutions” to the solve the dispute.

The protocol is designed to prevent unchecked goods going into the European single market and customs union via Northern Ireland’s neighbor, EU member state Ireland. But pro-British unionist communities in Northern Ireland are opposed, arguing that checks drive a wedge between the province and the rest of the UK. The checks were suspended after threats to port staff and blamed for some of the worst violence in years in Northern Ireland. The protocol has also cost Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster her job, and seen her successor pledged a tougher line on opposing it.

The Times this week reported that President Joe Biden had ordered US diplomats to rebuke London for its stance, which it said threatened the peace in the UK province. Bill Clinton’s administration was a key player in securing a landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of violence over British rule in Northern Ireland. Biden-a proud Irish-American with distant relatives still in Ireland-has taken a keen interest, with warnings it could threaten a hoped-for UK-US trade deal.

Macron has also blasted the UK and said it was “not serious” in wanting to backtrack on its commitments. Nothing is renegotiable. Everything is applicable,” he said. Johnson played down any rift after talks with Biden on Thursday, insisting the US president did not sound the alarm over the issue. He said there was “absolutely common ground” on all sides in upholding the Good Friday Agreement. – AFP

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