Boris Johnson has repeated his threat to unilaterally suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, as a war of words with EU leaders over Brexit risked overshadowing the G7 summit in Cornwall.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, told the UK prime minister on Saturday morning that the British government must honour its word over Brexit or risk jeopardising the country’s relationship with France.
Speaking to Sky News after Macron and other EU leaders used meetings on the sidelines of the summit to urge him to compromise, Johnson hit back, claiming the EU was constructing “all kinds of impediments” instead of applying the protocol “sensibly”.
“I think we can sort it out, but it is up to our EU friends and partners to understand that we will do whatever it takes,” he said. “If the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke article 16, as I have said before”.
He also said that some EU leaders he had spoken to “do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country, a single territory. I just need to get that into their heads”.
Macron and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had used their bilateral meetings with Johnson to press home the need to implement the protocol in full.
The Élysée Palace said the French president had stressed the common values between the two countries and the prospects for a “reset” in the relationship.
But it added that Macron had “strongly emphasised that this re-engagement required the British to honour their word to the Europeans and the framework defined by the Brexit agreements”.
The UK had hoped to keep Brexit off the agenda in Carbis Bay, with other pressing issues including the climate crisis due to be discussed. But talks on implementing the Northern Ireland protocol broke up without agreement earlier this week, and the standoff risks overshadowing the summit.
Downing Street said the protocol had also come up in separate meetings with Merkel, and the two EU presidents, Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission and Charles Michel of the European Council, suggesting a concerted effort by the EU side to resolve the issue.
An EU official said Von der Leyen and Michel had impressed on the prime minister the EU’s unanimity on the issue, and urged him to tone down the rhetoric over the issue.
The prime minister’s spokesman disputed the Élysée’s account of the meeting with Macron. “That is not how I would characterise their meeting,” he said. “Both the prime minister and President Macron agreed on the need to deepen the bilateral relationship between the UK and France.”
He claimed Macron had not made that closer relationship dependent on resolving the impasse over the protocol.
Johnson’s spokesman said he had told EU leaders in turn that he was looking for “urgent and innovative solutions” to the problems of the protocol.
Asked whether the UK was committed to implementing the agreement on Northern Ireland, the spokesman said: “The prime minister’s focus is to work within the protocol; that is currently our approach.”
No 10’s official readout of the meeting with Merkel said Johnson “underlined the UK’s position on the Northern Ireland protocol and the need to maintain both the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the UK”.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, used stronger terms in public on Saturday, urging the EU to be “pragmatic”, not bloody-minded” in the way they applied the protocol.
Raab told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “They can be more pragmatic about the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that is win-win or they can be bloody-minded and purist about it, in which case I am afraid we will not allow the integrity of the UK to be threatened.”
EU sources said Von der Leyen and Michel had made their position on the protocol clear publicly before flying to Cornwall, and were keen to hear Johnson’s point of view.
The pair met Johnson at 9.20am. Von der Leyen told a press conference earlier this week that the Northern Ireland protocol “has to be implemented” – while Macron warned that “nothing is negotiable,” in the protocol.
Both sides insist it is the other’s turn to make compromises in the bitter row, with the UK claiming it has made more than 10 proposals and received no reply from the EU.
The UK has threatened to unilaterally extend the grace period for implementing some checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, due to start taking place from 30 June.
That could result in the EU imposing an effective ban on chilled meat products such as sausages being sent from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland abides by EU agrifood rules as part of the delicate compromise struck to prevent a hard border arising on the island of Ireland. But the EU side says the UK has not met its promises to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.
They have also been exasperated by the combative tone taken by David Frost, the Cabinet minister responsible for negotiations with the EU.
Lord Frost was unexpectedly added to the guest list for the Cornwall summit earlier this week, as it became clear the issue of Brexit would be unavoidable.
The US president, Joe Biden, has also waded into the row this week, as it emerged that US diplomats had warned the UK that Frost’s actions risked inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland.
Johnson insisted there had been no disagreement over the issue when the pair met on Thursday, but both sides reiterated the importance of safeguarding the Good Friday agreement.