Boris Johnson was embroiled in an extraordinary public spat with EU leaders over Northern Ireland on Saturday as tensions over Brexit boiled over at the G7 summit in Cornwall.
After a series of tense bilateral meetings at which the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, told their summit host the UK must implement the Brexit deal in full, an unrepentant Johnson said he had urged his EU colleagues to “get it into their heads” that the UK is “a single country”.
And in a further explosive intervention, Johnson then reiterated the UK’s threat to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol unilaterally, by invoking article 16 – a move that would almost certainly provoke trade retaliation from Brussels. He told Sky News 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.”
The row overshadowed a summit at which Johnson had hoped to showcase “global Britain” as a strong and independent force on the world stage after Brexit. Instead, former British ambassadors said his failure to honour a Brexit deal that he himself had helped negotiate had fatally undermined trust in his government and damaged its international reputation.
Nigel Sheinwald, a former UK ambassador to Washington and the EU, said: “The lesson of this week is that you can’t have a global Britain which is genuinely respected and influential and impactful around the world if people doubt your basic bona fides.”
Referring to a document signed at the summit by Johnson and US president Joe Biden, Sheinwald added: “There is no point in writing new Atlantic charters which depend on mutual trust, mutual confidence and the rule of law, when you are operating as chancers.”
Johnson is hosting the summit at the Carbis Bay beach resort, where world leaders have been discussing critical issues including the climate crisis, recovery from the pandemic and how to contain China and Russia.
In their first face-to-face meeting since 2019, the G7 leaders, including Biden, welcomed the return of a multilateral approach to tackling global problems after the departure of Donald Trump from the White House.
But while Brexit was not on the formal agenda, EU leaders took the opportunity to issue a concerted rebuke to Johnson in back-to-back meetings on Saturday morning, over what they regard as the UK’s abject failure to abide by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Macron told Johnson that France was ready to work more closely with the UK, but only if the British people “honour their word to the Europeans and the framework defined by the Brexit agreements”, according to the Elysée palace. In an indication of the level of tension, that account was disputed by Johnson’s spokesman.
A similar message was pressed home by Merkel, who was pictured declining to bump elbows with Johnson as they posed for photographs at the start of their meeting. In a third meeting, Von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel told Johnson it was time to seek a way out of the standoff.
“All member states are aligned on this and this was clearly reiterated during the meeting,” said an EU official. “Rhetoric needs to be toned down and we need to actively look for the solutions … in the protocol.”
Lord Frost, the cabinet minister and EU negotiator whose pugnacious approach has dismayed his European counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, attended all three meetings on Saturday.
Biden has also stressed the importance of protecting the Good Friday agreement, after it emerged that US diplomats had taken the unusual step of warning Frost the approach risked inflaming Northern Irish tensions.
The shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “Months of denial and poor leadership mean the government hosts this crucial summit while stuck in a war of words with our closest partners on both sides of the Atlantic. This is an irresponsible diplomatic failure.”
Article 16 of the protocol allows for one side to take unilateral action in the event of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab had earlier set a confrontational tone for the day ahead when he said the EU must avoid being “bloody-minded” about the issue of border checks.
Johnson is due to hold a press conference on Sunday as the summit draws to a close, but No 10 fears EU leaders could use their own statements to hammer home their Brexit message.
An Opinium poll for the Observer shows 41% think the UK has become less influential over the past 10 years, with just 19% believing its influence has risen. Some 31% believe there has been no change. More specifically, 35% think Brexit has given the UK less influence, compared to 26% who think it has given the UK more.
Another former UK ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, said the Brexit row had demonstrated the need for the UK to keep its word if it wanted to win respect. “An international agreement is not an a la carte menu from which you can choose what you like and ignore the rest,” Darroch said. “Once you sign off on it you have to implement it properly and fully. ‘Global Britain’ is not going to work unless we are seen to live up to our commitments.”