Déjà vu as Brexit overshadows UK’s moment on world stage

ROME — Boris Johnson promised to “get Brexit done.” But it’s becoming clear it will never be done — at least not if the Brits and the French have anything to do with it. 

A big dust-up between London and Paris over fish provided a noisy backdrop to the G20 in Rome over the weekend, just as the U.K. prime minister hopes to make a splash at the British-hosted COP26 climate summit.

It’s not the first time we’ve been here — at the G7 in June it was sausages.

The U.K.’s first major foray into global diplomacy after Brexit became an extended meditation on the Northern Ireland protocol, the mechanism keeping the island of Ireland in the trade domain of the EU in a bid to avoid a hard border there.

In Cornwall, on the English seaside, Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden managed to move on from a bumpy opening to the June summit — only for Johnson to receive an ear-bashing from a series of EU leaders over the key Brexit setup.

Then French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in. At a bilateral meeting, Johnson reportedly tried to explain his unhappiness with the protocol by asking Macron what he would do if sausages from Toulouse could not be moved to Paris.

The French president was said to have retorted that this analogy did not work because Paris and Toulouse were both part of the same country — comments read as incorrectly suggesting Northern Ireland is not part of the U.K. London quickly seized on the “offensive” remarks, while the Élysée insisted Macron had meant they were not in the same “single geographic area.”

While Johnson trumpeted a high-level G7 agreement on sending vaccines to the developing world and progress on climate talks, diplomats’ and aides’ efforts were concentrated on defusing the row.

Here we go again

In Rome this weekend, the saga was repeated almost word for word as the meetings about coronavirus, climate change and global taxation unfolded against a backdrop of a full-blown row over post-Brexit fishing rights. 

While the U.K. was not hosting this time, the prime minister and officials still had the clear self-interest of stressing to G20 nations the importance of agreeing to joint action to cut emissions and phase out coal ahead of the COP26 meeting in Scotland.

Yet in the run-up to the gathering, Brexit dominated, with France threatening retaliation, which could start Tuesday, after French boats were denied post-Brexit fishing licenses.

An already awkward situation was made worse after it emerged French Prime Minister Jean Castex had written to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, warning that the U.K.’s failure to cooperate with French demands on its fishing licenses would hurt the EU as a whole. 

Seizing on that at a post-G20 press conference, Johnson said he was “puzzled to read a letter from the French PM explicitly asking for Britain to be punished for leaving the EU.”

Despite the heated rhetoric, hopes of a truce were briefly raised Sunday as Johnson and Macron met on the sidelines. An Elysée adviser said both 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 for the French to decide whether they want to step away from the threats they’ve made in recent days about breaching the Brexit agreement.”

Macron insisted Sunday that Britain must give ground in the fishing dispute or France would trigger trade reprisals this week, adding: “The ball is in Britain’s court.”

“If the British make no movement, the measures of November 2 will have to be put in place,” Macron told reporters at the G20 summit, while adding that he “hoped there would be a positive response” on Monday.

The British government insists Brexit has not overshadowed its big moment on the world stage. Asked by POLITICO if he had G7 déjà vu, Johnson said: “This time it’s fish rather than sausages … but actually there are bigger fish to fry, everybody knows that.”

He maintained he was “not at all” worried about talks being derailed by Brexit and “the issue is how much more progress can we make [on climate change].” Seeking to return to his favored theme at the close of the G20, Johnson ramped up the climate warnings and told reporters: “If Glasgow fails, the whole thing fails.”

While relations are at a low, there’s no consensus on the motivations for each side. Macron has an election coming up, and fishermen are evidently on his mind. 

Macron “has a reputation to maintain” as one of the hardest hardliners on Brexit, one British diplomat said, while Johnson needs no encouragement to wave the Union Jack around.

For his part, Johnson appears to have decided it’s worth aggressively holding his ground in every confrontation over the lasting shape of Brexit. An official familiar with No. 10 strategy insisted the U.K. is not playing games, and emphasized that Northern Ireland is a far more urgent priority.

The latest salvo in the fishing war has at least underlined how far apart the Brits and French remain, with the future of a resolution on Northern Ireland still very much hanging in the balance. And after the G20, it may be some time before Macron and Johnson are left alone in a room again.

David M. Herszenhorn and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.



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