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Northern Ireland at the G7 Cornwall Summit

Alexandre El Ghaoui, London Politica, and Tristen Naylor, G7 Research Group
June 14, 2021

The unexpected hot topic of this year's G7 Cornwall Summit was Northern Ireland. Brexit trade negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol dominated airwaves throughout the weekend in the United Kingdom, and left it increasingly isolated on the issue. On the eve of the summit, the United States made it clear that any positions that violate the Protocol and endanger the Good Friday Agreement would not be welcome, a not-so-subtle message to the UK. Reports emerged that Washington's highest ranking diplomat in the UK conveyed President Joe Biden's "greatest concerns" that London was inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland. At the first bilateral meeting of the summit, President Biden reportedly urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to comply with the Protocol and find a solution to the trade negotiations with the European Union. After their meeting, Prime Minister Johnson downplayed any tensions, stating his desire to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and find common ground.

Prime Minister Johnson's bilateral meetings on Saturday with his European counterparts were much less cordial as he faced a united front of German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron, and the EU's Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel calling for the United Kingdom to abide by the Protocol. Tensions sharply increased as London's rhetoric became more blunt. The British were getting progressively frustrated with the negotiations. The Europeans were not budging. Day 2 of the Cornwall Summit elevated the Northern Ireland issue to the forefront of the negotiations; it was clear that a full-on rift had emerged.

After Saturday, all gloves were off. The UK and the EU had fundamentally different views on the negotiations. For the UK, this was a question of respecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty. UK foreign minister Dominic Raab stated, "Various EU figures here in Carbis Bay, but frankly for months now and years, have characterised Northern Ireland as somehow a separate country and that is wrong." For the EU, this was a question of the UK's inability to abide by international law. President Macron echoed this belief at his final press conference, responding, "France has never allowed itself to question British sovereignty, the integrity of British territory and the respect of its sovereignty. Over a number of years after Brexit we established certain rules, a protocol agreement, and also a commercial treaty. We just want them to be respected, seriously, calmly, professionally."

At his final press conference summarizing the G7's new initiatives, Prime Minister Johnson was repeatedly asked about the diplomatic row with France, the trade negotiations with Brussels, and his view on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Even after a successful summit for the UK, in which it announced major COVID-19, health and climate change initiatives, Northern Ireland was the issue everyone was clamouring to get more information on, much to the dismay of Prime Minister Johnson.

Although this year's G7 summit marked the return of multilateralism in a post-Trump era, the EU and its American ally have reminded the UK that even among friends there are serious issues in need of resolution.

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