2021 G7: Northern Ireland takes centre stage amid talks on hard borders and sausages
The Group of Seven, or G7, is an informal, exclusive club of wealthy democratic nations. As an inter-governmental organisation, it meets annually to discuss and offer solutions to global issues. This year, June 11-13, leaders of Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA congregated for the 47th G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall.
Against the stunning backdrop of a Cornish summer, expectations were high, and leaders worked to produce their open agenda for global action, to ‘build back better.' Amongst a number of pledges, the 2021 agenda commits G7 members to contribute funds to the developing world worth up to two billion pounds to tackle the climate crisis, donate a further 870 million Covid-19 vaccination doses, and work towards getting 40 million more girls into education. Another contentious topic broached was the Irish questions as tensions rise on matters of a hard border.
Northern Ireland seemingly stole the show at this year’s G7, shining a spotlight on Boris Johnson’s inflexible approach to the UK’s relations with the EU, vis-à-vis the Irish question.
When the UK voted to leave the European Union five years ago, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was jeopardised. This treaty successfully put an end to the troubles and conflict ceased between the unionists, based in Northern Ireland, and nationalists in the Republic of Ireland. In April this year, reports of violent riots in Northern Ireland dominated the headlines once again, for the first time in more than 20 years.
The unrest was in part a response to complications arising from Brexit, that the EU and the UK had attempted to resolve through the Northern Ireland Protocol, enacted in January this year. It was designed as a compromise to avoid a land border separating the Republic from its neighbour, so that lorries can move freely between. A physical border would likely have given rise to conflict.
The Protocol instead created a border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland. Products imported into Northern Ireland must be inspected according to EU standards before they can be transported into the Republic. The UK unilaterally extended the so-called ‘grace period’ by six months, allowing supermarkets to continue moving products from Britain to Northern Ireland without being subject to inspections, until October 1.
Joe Biden, making his first appearance at the G7 summit as President Of The United States (POTUS), reportedly attended with the intent of settling this particular Brexit row. Prior to G7, POTUS’s senior US embassy diplomats cautioned the UK’s Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, to find a solution to the border check controversy. At a secret meeting between POTUS and Mr Johnson that took place on the Thursday before G7 meetings officially began, Biden expressed his views in favour of protecting the 1998 Agreement with “deep sincerity”.
The British Prime Minister, however, reiterated on the Sunday that he will not back down, steadfastly committed to the UK’s unilateral decision to extend the grace period, despite Brussel’s patience “wearing thin”.
For Mr Johnson, the Protocol was “reasonable” but its “interpretation and application” has not been “sensible or pragmatic”. During an interview at G7, he stated that if the Protocol continues to be “applied in this way”, Westminster would “obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16”.
Article 16 allows either participating party, the UK or the EU in this case, to unilaterally withdraw from the Northern Ireland Protocol should it lead to ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’. The terminology may further aggravate the situation, as ‘serious’ is not defined in real terms, opening the door to further misunderstandings between the UK and the EU.
The last five years have been plagued by misunderstandings and miscommunications, and the 2021 G7 summit was seemingly no different.
“I talked to some of our friends here today who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory”, says the British PM.
Mr Johnson’s comment likely refers to a conversation between himself and the French president, Emanuel Macron on the Saturday, in which the PM attempted to clarify why the Protocol fails in practice. Mr Johnson explained to Macron that preventing the flow of goods through border checks between Britain and Northern Ireland would be similar to if sausages from Toulouse could not be moved to Paris.
Mr Macron reportedly responded that the comparison fails because Toulouse and Paris are in the same country, implying that Northern Ireland is separate from Britain.
Foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, stated that some EU senior officials at the summit referring to Northern Ireland as a different country, was “offensive” and has “real world effects on the communities of Northern Ireland”.
With the resignation of DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and the seven-day period in which a new first minister and deputy must be selected, the invoking of Article 16 of the Protocol could prove a real threat to security on all sides. As relations between Westminster and Brussels sour, Mr Johnson is urged to avoid unilateralism and seek compromise.
Georgina Mccartney, University College London Campus Ambassador