It remains to be seen how much impact the G7 leaders’ decisions on vaccines, climate change and China will have, but as a diplomatic event, their summit in Cornwall was a success. US president Joe Biden was able to demonstrate the return of American leadership as European leaders overcame their differences over how to deal with Beijing by agreeing some language critical of its actions in the closing communiqué.
The sun shone on the magnificent Carbis Bay beach near St Ives for two out of three days and British prime minister Boris Johnson deployed the biggest guns in Britain’s armoury of soft power when Queen Elizabeth joined the leaders along with Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, and Prince William and his wife Catherine.
This was an opportunity to launch Britain into its hoped-for, post-Brexit role as a convening power that can bring together international actors and catalyse them into collective action. But the summit was overshadowed for Johnson by the increasingly angry dispute with the European Union over his failure to implement the Northern Ireland protocol.
Johnson threatened on Saturday to suspend the protocol by triggering article 16, accusing EU leaders of failing to respect the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. Downing Street briefed the Sunday papers that French leader Emmanuel Macron had suggested that checking chilled meats crossing the Irish Sea was not comparable to banning Toulouse sausages in Paris because the two cities were in the same country.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab affected outrage on the Sunday talk shows, before suggesting that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the UK was equivalent to that of Catalonia’s in Spain, where the constitution prohibits secession.
Johnson’s sabre rattling about article 16 is a transparent ruse to prepare the ground for the lesser offence of a unilateral extension of grace periods for checks on chilled meats at the end of this month.
The prime minister’s problem is that his approach to the protocol is in conflict with his ambition for Britain to take a leading role in the rules-based international order. When New York Times London bureau chief Mark Landler suggested at the closing press conference that many figures in the Biden administration suspected Johnson was still ideologically closer to Donald Trump, the prime minister was literally lost for words.
Johnson apparently believes he can ignore treaty obligations and inflame populist passions when it suits his domestic purposes, while posing as a champion of the rule of law on the international stage.
It served his fellow leaders’ purposes to indulge him in Cornwall but he will soon have to choose between his ambitions for Global Britain and his piratical approach to relations with Europe.