For weeks things have been quiet in the summer heat. But in recent days the normal diplomatic back-channelling between London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Rome has cranked into gear before the G7 meeting in Biarritz of the world’s most advanced economies.
British officials have been liaising with their EU counterparts on how to get on the right side of the trade war between the US and China, tread a diplomatic fine line over the European-backed Iranian nuclear deal opposed by Donald Trump and get the rhetoric right on the precarious situation in Hong Kong in the presence of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “This is a diplomatic quagmire of a G7,” said a European diplomat.
But that quagmire is not restricted to the US, Canada and Japan. Britain and the other EU countries in attendance – France, Germany and Italy – have plenty of tensions of their own.
“They were nervous, and that makes us nervous,” an EU source said of talks with officials in Whitehall about Boris Johnson’s first appearance as a head of government on the world stage.
There is currently no relationship between the power players in the EU and the new British government, and there is very little trust.
Everything that Johnson has done so far in power is seen as being for domestic consumption, and, to a large extent, that is expected to continue. Some fear a “big moment” from Johnson in Biarritz at which he seeks to blame Brussels for the Brexit impasse and help along the dangerous slide to a no-deal exit.
But hope also springs eternal that the new prime minister will at some point add some ballast to the claim that he genuinely wants to leave the European Union with a deal. Biarritz is again seen as being as good a point as any.
“We believe that the UK is willing to leave the EU on 31 October,” a source said. “We do not have any evidence yet that the UK wants to negotiate a deal.”
All is being done in Brussels to get things right on the European side and to avoid a repetition of the Salzburg summit where Theresa May was seen to have been humiliated. “A frosty approach would be self-defeating,” an EU official said, while admitting that Donald Tusk, president of the European council, who will also attend, doesn’t always toe the line.
Everything has been contemplated, from the tone of the speeches to how to deal with an unlikely, but not unthinkable, attempt by Trump to give “the art of the deal” a go in the Brexit negotiations.
On the British side, there appears to be some willing. Johnson is to speak on the phone to Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar as well as to Tusk this week.
More significantly, he will leave the comfort of Downing Street and the bubble of advisers led by Dominic Cummings for Paris and Berlin to meet Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel for the first time since becoming prime minister. “Perhaps those meetings and Biarritz will be a reality check,” said an EU diplomat intimately involved in the Brexit negotiations.
Johnson’s claims to want to renegotiate the deal appear empty so far given his insistence that the UK will leave on 31 October, which leaves little time for a serious rethink. There have not been any proposals sent Brussels’ way.
“They have made it easy for the EU side in a way,” said a source. “If they came up with a 15-year time limit on the backstop or some way in which the people of Northern Ireland had a regular opportunity to vote in favour of exiting the backstop, you might have some more difficult conversations.
“But that is a million miles from where we are.”
When Johnson’s EU adviser David Frost visited Brussels recently he admitted that even without the backstop there was no guarantee the withdrawal agreement would be backed by parliament.
“So the position is get rid of the backstop and then we will see what else we don’t like?” asked one diplomat. “Where’s the incentive for us?”
In reality, August may just be an ordeal to get through for both sides. “It depends on what Boris Johnson really wants,” a rueful diplomat concluded.
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