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World & Nation

At G-7, Britain’s Boris Johnson steps onto the world stage, in the shadow of Brexit and Trump

French President Emmanuel Macron Receives U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson At Elysee Palace In Paris
French President Emmanuel Macron accompanies British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after their meeting at the Elysee Presidential Palace on Thursday in Paris. Johnson was on an official visit prior to attending the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz, France.
(Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images )

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads into this weekend’s Group of 7 summit with a particular distinction: Of all the leaders taking part, none has been the recipient of such lavish praise from President Trump. The U.S. president has called him a “good man,” a leader who can get things done, and — perhaps Trump’s highest accolade — Britain’s Trump.

For Johnson, who will mark a month in office during the gathering, a warm relationship with Trump — a longtime cheerleader of Britain’s exit from the European Union — could prove both an asset and a liability.

In addition to Britain and the U.S., the G-7 is made up of some of America’s closest allies: Germany, France, Japan, Canada and Italy. But as NATO ally Denmark discovered this week, historical bonds of friendship sometimes offer scant shelter from a stormy blast of disapproval from the U.S. president.

With the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline 10 weeks away and no terms of Britain’s divorce from the remaining 27 EU nations in hand, a public show of solidarity from Washington could help bolster Johnson’s claims that the pain of breaking with the bloc will be offset, at some point, by a robust and far-reaching new trade arrangement with the United States.

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At the same time, a too-tight embrace from Trump does little to endear Johnson to the British public, which is notably unenthusiastic about the U.S. president, or to European leaders, whose politesse overlies resentment of Trump’s repeated attempts to undermine the EU.

Johnson has been trying to tamp down public fears over the potentially catastrophic impact of a no-deal departure from the EU, especially after a leaked government document last week laid out grim scenarios including shortages of foodstuffs and medicines.

Brexit’s backers say leaving the EU will enhance Britain’s stature in the world, but many commentators at home and on the continent say it could instead result in a state of virtual vassalage to Trump’s America. The German newspaper Die Tageszeitung this week played slyly off Trump’s talk of buying Greenland, which was rebuffed by leaders of Greenland and of Denmark, the kingdom of which the vast Arctic island is part.

“Can’t Trump Just Buy England?” the newspaper, known as Taz, asked in a satirical headline.

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At home, where Johnson may soon face a general election, some veteran British politicians have warned Johnson about too much chumminess with Trump.

“This is a highly transactional administration,” former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said last week in an interview with the BBC. “You don’t get something for nothing.”

Others have suggested that in exchange for a trade deal, Trump would expect Britain to side with him over European allies on matters such as the Iran nuclear accord that the U.S. leader spurned, but that Germany, France and Britain have sought to uphold.

The G-7 gathering in the French resort of Biarritz comes on the heels of Johnson’s first major diplomatic foray: talks this week with Europe’s most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the meeting’s host, French President Emmanuel Macron.

In Berlin and Paris, Johnson was cordially received — Merkel even referred to him as “dear Boris” — but the famously brash British leader, who has predicted that his own self-proclaimed “oomph” will power through a new Brexit deal, ran up against some harsh realities.

Johnson has demanded a renegotiation of the EU withdrawal accord that was repeatedly rejected by British lawmakers and led to the ouster of his predecessor, Theresa May, while insisting Britain will leave with or without a deal. But even as Johnson stood by their sides, voicing repeated optimism about striking a fresh departure deal, the German and French leaders declared that the EU would not accept any arrangement that jeopardized peace on the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, will exit the EU; Ireland will remain in the bloc.

Johnson has insisted on the scrapping of the so-called backstop, a kind of insurance policy against the creation of a formal customs infrastructure on the Irish border, which under Brexit would become the U.K.’s only land frontier with the EU. There’s broad agreement that a “hard” border would risk reigniting sectarian violence.

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The European leaders — who are seeking to guard against Johnson blaming them for Britain “crashing out” of the EU — said they were open to hearing technical ideas from Johnson on the border impasse, but offered no sign of compromise on the fundamentals.

“The Good Friday agreement” — which established an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — “needs to be preserved and respected,” Merkel said briskly. Macron echoed: “Irish peace is European peace, and we shouldn’t weaken that just because of a British crisis.”

During his talks with European leaders this week, Johnson broke with Trump on an important question: What about Russia? In advance of the G-7, Trump has been talking up the possibility of welcoming President Vladimir Putin back into the group of nations from which Russia was ejected in 2014 after it annexed Crimea.

In Berlin on Wednesday, Johnson found common ground with Merkel in saying there was no reason to reward Putin at this juncture. The British leader made a point of bringing up the brazen attempted assassination of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who was critically sickened along with his daughter in a nerve-agent attack last year in the quiet English cathedral town of Salisbury. Moscow has brushed aside overwhelming evidence of its culpability.

Johnson said that “given the use of chemical weapons on British soil, given the continuing instability, the civil war in Ukraine, given Russia’s provocation not just in Ukraine but in many other places,” there was not yet a case to be made for Russia’s reinstatement.

Macron, too, opposes any Russian reinstatement barring a Crimea solution, saying that would be a “strategic error.” French officials have said, though, that the French president is willing to support Russia being invited as a guest to next year’s U.S.-hosted G-7 meeting.

Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and Times staff writer King from Washington.


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