A succession of Europe’s most powerful figures lined up to tell the prime minister there was no renegotiating his Brexit deal, with French president Emmanuel Macron telling him he had to “keep his word” if he wanted to reset relations with Paris.
But Mr Johnson retorted that he will do “whatever it takes” to see off an impending ban on exports of sausages and minced beef from mainland Britain, declaring he “will not hesitate” to suspend the protocol if the EU fails to offer the compromise he is demanding.
Meanwhile US president Joe Biden gave a barely veiled signal of disapproval for Brexit as he hailed the EU following talks with Mr Macron as “an incredibly strong and vibrant entity” of which his administration was “very supportive”.
Mr Johnson’s isolation from former EU partners appeared to be symbolised by a picture of German chancellor Angela Merkel declining to share an elbow-bump with the prime minister.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen urged Johnson to tone down his rhetoric over the so-called sausage war, after foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused Brussels of being “bloody-minded” about the application of rules which the PM agreed to as part of his EU withdrawal deal in 2019.
Speaking after meeting the PM alongside European Council president Charles Michel, Ms Von der Leyen pointed out that the protocol had been agreed in full by both London and Brussels, adding: “Both sides must implement what we agreed on. There is complete EU unity on this.”
But Mr Johnson came out fighting, declaring he is ready to invoke Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side temporarily to suspend its provisions if they are causing economic, societal or environmental damage.
He said that the ban was one of a number of “impediments” to trade which he blamed on the EU taking a “theologically draconian” approach to applying the rules.
And he suggested that EU leaders needed to “get into their heads” the fact that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the UK.
In an interview with Sky News, Mr Johnson was asked whether he was lying or had not understoof the treaty when he said last year that his deal would not create a customs border in the Irish Sea.
“I think the treaty I signed is perfectly reasonable,” he replied. “I don’t think that the interpretation or application of the protocol is sensible or pragmatic.
“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.
“If the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke Article 16.”
And he added: “I’ve talked to some of our friends here today, who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country, a single territory. I just need to get that into their heads.”
The PM’s combative comments appeared to take the EU side aback.
“I don’t understand, why do strong in the middle of a summit?” asked one official.
Invoking Article 16 would authorise retaliatory action from Brussels, which could include tariffs or quotas on UK exports, which need not be limited to the products involved in the Northern Irish dispute.
Former national security adviser and ambassador to France Peter Ricketts said Mr Johnson was wrong to escalate tensions at a summit designed to demonstrate unity between the world’s major democratic powers.
“This is the polar opposite of what the PM should be doing,” said Lord Ricketts. “Instead of winding it up, he ought to be using this unique moment, with the key EU leaders in the UK enjoying the exceptional hospitality, to rebuild some trust and create the climate for negotiators to find a solution.”
And the director general of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, voiced horror at the prospect of a UK-EU trade war at a time when global commerce is struggling back to its feet after the coronavirus crisis.
“I would really, really hope that a UK-EU trade war will not take place,” said Dr Okonjo-Iweala. “It’s too costly for both sides. This is not what the world needs right now.”
Mr Johnson was confronted over the Northern Ireland protocol in a series of early-morning meetings with Mr Macron, Ms Von der Leyen, Mr Michel and Ms Merkel.
Speaking in English, the French president told Mr Johnson that their two countries had common interests, but that ties could only improve if the PM delivered on his promises.
“The president told Boris Johnson there needed to be a reset of the Franco-British relationship,” said a source close to the French leader.
“This can happen provided that he keeps his word with the Europeans.”
The PM’s official spokesperson was unable to point to any indication that the EU leaders were willing to display the “pragmatism” demanded by Mr Johnson, but rejected suggestions of a deep cross-Channel rift.
Asked if Mr Johnson felt “ganged up on”, he replied: “No, not at all. They were very constructive discussions on a range of issues and the EU leaders agreed on the need for further talks.”
The row arises from strict EU rules barring movements of chilled meat products into the 27-nation bloc on food quality and safety grounds.
Mr Johnson’s decision to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea means that Northern Ireland is covered by the ban.
The UK is resisting EU proposals to resolve the problem by formally aligning food safety and hygiene regulations, fearing that this would prevent future trade deals with countries like the US.
Downing Street accepts there has been no breach of the agreement by the EU, but insists Brussels is imposing the rules in an excessively “purist” way. London argues the EU should simply accept that UK standards are equivalent to those on the continent.
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