ROME – Boris Johnson has promised to “make Brexit happen”. But it is becoming clear that this will never be done – at least not if the British and French have anything to do with it.
A big brawl between London and Paris over fish provided a noisy backdrop for the G20 in Rome this weekend, just as the British Prime Minister hopes to make a splash at the COP26 climate summit hosted by the United Kingdom.
This is not the first time we have been here – at the G7 in June it was sausages.
The UK’s first major foray into global diplomacy after Brexit has become a protracted meditation on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the mechanism keeping the island of Ireland in the EU’s trade arena with the aim of ‘avoid a hard border there.
In Cornwall on the English coast, Johnson and US President Joe Biden made it through a bumpy opening to the June summit – only for Johnson to be criticized by a series of EU leaders over the key setup of Brexit.
Then French President Emmanuel Macron intervened. In a bilateral meeting, Johnson would have tried to explain his dissatisfaction with the protocol by asking Macron what he would do if the sausages from Toulouse could not be transported to Paris.
The French president reportedly retorted that this analogy did not work because Paris and Toulouse were both part of the same country – comments read as falsely suggesting that Northern Ireland is not part of the UK. the Élysée insisted that Macron had meant that they were not in the same “single geographical area”.
As Johnson trumpeted a high-level G7 deal on vaccine shipments to the developing world and progress on climate talks, the efforts of diplomats and aides focused on defusing the dispute.
Here we go again
In Rome over the weekend, the saga repeated itself almost word for word as meetings on coronavirus, climate change and global taxation unfold against the backdrop of a real row over post-Brexit fishing rights .
While the UK did not host this time, the Prime Minister and officials still had a personal interest in stressing to the G20 countries the importance of agreeing to joint action to cut emissions and phase out coal before the COP26 meeting in Scotland.
Still, as the rally approached, Brexit dominated, with France threatening retaliation, which could begin on Tuesday, after French boats were denied post-Brexit fishing licenses.
An already delicate situation worsened after French Prime Minister Jean Castex wrote to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, warning that the UK’s refusal to cooperate with French requirements for its fishing licenses would harm the EU as a whole.
Seizing this at a post-G20 press conference, Johnson said he was “puzzled to read a letter from the French prime minister explicitly calling for Britain to be punished for leaving the EU.”
Despite the heated rhetoric, hopes of a truce were briefly raised on Sunday as Johnson and Macron met on the sidelines. An Elysee adviser said the two sides had agreed to “stabilize the situation” – but Downing Street immediately dismissed this version of events.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “It will be up to the French to decide whether they want to walk away from the threats they have made in recent days regarding the breach of the Brexit deal.”
Macron insisted on Sunday that Britain must cede ground in the fisheries dispute or France would trigger trade retaliation this week. “What we decided with PM Johnson is that we would come up with a method of what we can give in the very short term in terms of mutual proofs of goodwill and then over several weeks how we can move forward. I call it de-escalation, “Macron told reporters at the G20 summit, adding that he” hoped there would be a positive response “on Monday.
“Now the ball is in their court. If the British do not budge, obviously the measures announced for November 2 will have to be implemented because they will have rejected the offer.”
The UK government insists Brexit has not overshadowed its big moment on the world stage. Asked by POLITICO if he had seen the G7 before, Johnson said: “This time it’s fish rather than sausage … but actually there are bigger fish to fry, everyone knows that. . “
He claimed he was’ not at all ‘worried that the talks would be derailed by Brexit and that’ the problem is how much progress can we make [on climate change]. Seeking to return to his favorite theme at the close of the G20, Johnson stepped up climate warnings and told reporters: ‘If Glasgow fails, everything fails.’
While relationships are at an all-time low, there is no consensus on the motivations on either side. Macron has an election coming up, and fishermen are obviously on his mind.
Macron “has a reputation to maintain” as one of the hardline Brexit supporters, a British diplomat has said, while Johnson needs no encouragement to wave at Union Jack.
For his part, Johnson appears to have decided it is worthwhile to aggressively maintain his position in every confrontation over the sustainable form of Brexit. An official familiar with Strategy No 10 insisted the UK was not playing games and pointed out that Northern Ireland was a much more urgent priority.
The latest round of the fishing war has at least underlined just how distant the British and French remain, with the future of a resolution on Northern Ireland still on the line. And after the G20, it may take – to be awhile before Macron and Johnson are alone in a room again.
David M. Herszenhorn, Rym Momtaz and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with more details on Emmanuel Macron’s comments on Sunday.