US President Joe Biden has made a dramatic intervention in the Brexit dispute as one EU official accused the British government of acting as a “coloniser” against Ireland and its place in the EU.
The issue was the first item on the agenda for the Biden team as it arrived into Britain ahead of a G7 meeting of world powers in England.
It was the US president’s first overseas visit, and the need to “stand behind” Brexit’s Irish Protocol against efforts to undermine it was the issue which most vexed the Biden team.
Anger at Britain’s backsliding on the Protocol overshadowed the G7 summit, despite a major damage limitation exercise by the British media.
It was revealed on the eve of his arrival that President Biden took the unprecedented step of ordering the United States’ most senior diplomat in London, Yael Lempert, to deliver a ‘demarche’ - a formal diplomatic reprimand - in a meeting with Brexit minister Lord Frost last week.
The British were also urged to end their inflammatory actions and rhetoric over the Protocol, while it was again made clear that British hopes of a US/UK free trade deal would fail without Britain abiding by the agreements in entered into with the EU in December.
Mr Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One as it flew in: “President Biden has been crystal clear about his rock-solid belief in the Good Friday Agreement as the foundation for peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland.
“That agreement must be protected, and any steps that imperil or undermine it will not be welcomed by the United States.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson’s stance was endangering the peace deal, Mr Sullivan said: “I’m not going to characterise that at this point. I’m only going to say that President Biden is going to make statements in principle on this front.
“He’s not issuing threats or ultimatums; he’s going to simply convey his deep-seated belief that we need to stand behind and protect this Protocol.”
Mr Sullivan said the president believes the post-Brexit Protocol is “critical” to ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement is protected.
He said that both sides must continue with negotiations, adding: “But whatever way they find to proceed must, at its core, fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that.”
The 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Mr Biden could “see through the spin and fog” from London on the protocol.
“I’m not surprised at the strength of feeling that we have got from the US President,” Mr Coveney told reporters in Dublin.
“I think he has a capacity to see through the spin and the fog and the media articles in the British media about the protocol, and [he] simplifies the message: a deal was agreed, for good reason. Now it needs to be implemented.”
Claims in the London media that Britain could still force a ‘sea border’ between Ireland and the EU, potentially as a first step to a hard border through Ireland, have been rejected in the strongest of terms.
EU leaders “will not allow the former coloniser to force Ireland out of the internal market”, one EU diplomat said.
Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s head of relations with Britain, told journalists the claims were “simply not true”. Mr Sefcovic also said the European Commission would not tolerate further failures of compliance by London, and called for “concrete deadlines and milestones” for Britain to fulfil its existing obligations.
“If this does not happen, and if the UK takes further unilateral action over the coming weeks, the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations.”
Mr Sefcovic said the protocol was the “best solution” to ensure there was no return of a remilitarised border through Ireland, adding: “No-one knows it better than Lord Frost himself, then the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator.”
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill called on the London government to “honour its commitments” on the Protocol. The Sinn Féin vice president pointed out that a majority of people support the Protocol and the opportunity it allows the north to trade with both the EU and to Britain.
Speaking after a meeting of the joint UK/EU committee on the implementation of the Protocol, she said progress had been made in some areas during the meeting but that there was now “a crossroads point”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Biden’s intervention ahead of the G7 meeting was “significant”, and said he believed the US is impatient with the Protocol stalemate.
He also said it is significant that Mr Biden specifically noted that any agreement between the EU and UK on sanitary standards would not impact on a trade deal between the US and Britain. Hardline Brexiteers have long argued that Britain’s ability to trade would be damaged by a deepening of its agreement on food health and safety with the EU.
The Taoiseach said a Swiss-style proposal to set aside 80pc checks on food and animals is the “logical and common sense approach”.
But the French president Emmanuelle Macron was more resolute. He insisted “nothing is negotiable”.
Asked about British demands for aspects of the protocol to be reworked, Macron told journalists at a press conference: “I think this is not serious – to want to have another look at something in July that was finalised in December after years of discussions and work.”
“We have a protocol,” he added. “If after six months you say we cannot respect what was negotiated, then that says nothing can be respected.
“I believe in the weight of a treaty, I believe in taking a serious approach. Nothing is negotiable. Everything is applicable.”