The Washington Post

Johnson aims to smooth G-7 tensions as he hosts summit

Meeting of global leaders comes amid spats over Brexit, vaccines, travel

- BY WILLIAM BOOTH, KARLA ADAM AND MICHAEL BIRNBAUM william.booth@washpost.com karla.adam@washpost.com michael.birnbaum@washpost.com Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia.

london — There is little doubt that Boris Johnson will play a jolly, hearty host for this week’s clubby Group of Seven meeting at a seaside resort in England, spinning his historical yarns, quoting his bits of Latin, ensuring wine glasses are topped up.

Johnson is the ultimate afterdinne­r speaker. Before he became prime minister, he made a living off his bonhomie in hotel ballrooms — and serving as a guest host for the BBC television quiz show, “Have I Got News For You.”

But will Johnson’s shtick be enough to smooth over tensions that have flared since the leaders of these countries last met in person? And can he at the same time be a convincing champion for his vision for a swashbuckl­ing free-trading “Global Britain”?

Britain and the European Union have been engaged in nasty spats over Brexit, vaccine supplies and travel restrictio­ns. Britain and France even sent gunboats into the English Channel last month in a tiff over fishing rights. Because the worrisome delta variant is surging in England, British tourists aren’t welcome in most of Europe.

Britain’s relationsh­ip with the United States hasn’t been as antagonist­ic. Johnson and President Biden have never met — though Biden once reportedly described Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of President Donald Trump.

The Biden administra­tion doesn’t seem in any more of a rush than Trump’s was to realize Johnson’s dream of a lucrative post-brexit trade deal. And there’s the potential for Biden, who has Irish roots, to register his vexation over Johnson’s contributi­ons to a straining of the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

They are scheduled to hold their first bilateral meeting on Thursday, with a visit to an island castle off the coast of Cornwall, England.

Analysts said they expect Johnson and Biden to be “profession­als” and get on — there’s strong reasons for both of them to do so. Still, “the special relationsh­ip is going to be awkward for a number of years, and certainly for as long as Boris Johnson is prime minister,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

The mop-headed British leader has a list of aspiration­al asks for the G-7: The official aim of the summit is to help the world beat down the pandemic, “and then build back better from coronaviru­s and create a greener, more prosperous future.”

Johnson said he will ask his counterpar­ts to “rise to the greatest challenge of the post-war era” and vaccinate “the world by the end of next year.” He didn’t offer any specifics.

Britain has deployed one of the most successful vaccinatio­n programs on Earth — and though it has given money to the Covax effort to distribute vaccines internatio­nally, it has reserved doses produced on its territory for its own residents.

The G-7 will also be something of a warm-up act for November’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, when Johnson will host a much larger contingent of world leaders and diplomats. He aims to get commitment­s from the G-7 on funding to help lessdevelo­ped countries reduce their carbon emissions.

As Johnson asks the wealthy members of the club to do more, though, his government has announced it would slash foreign aid from 0.7 percent of its national income to 0.5 percent, saying the cuts were necessary because Britain had borrowed so heavily during the pandemic.

Diplomats and observers say the G-7 is a big moment for Johnson to establish Britain’s place in the world, after his messy split from the European Union.

There was much talk of Global Britain during the Brexit campaign. But less than six weeks after the United Kingdom for

mally left the E.U., on Jan. 31, 2020, the World Health Organizati­on declared a global pandemic.

“That kind of shut down that agenda,” said Will Jennings, a politics professor at the University of Southampto­n.

Since then, Johnson and his administra­tion have been mostly consumed by domestic issues, with a few high-profile exceptions, such as offering nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents a path to British citizenshi­p.

“But an event like the G-7 may give us a fleeting glance of the kind of a profile Boris Johnson might start to look to develop, in a broader global sense,” Jennings said.

The prime minister wants more than “just a photo op” from the G-7, said Niblett, of Chatham House.

Britain is still in a rough postdivorc­e patch with the E.U., and Niblett said Johnson wants to show “he’s close to America,”

which gives him leverage with the Europeans and helps him make the case that Brexit was worthwhile.

“It gives him a confirmati­on at home that, even if there isn’t a U.K.-U.S. trade deal in the offing for a while, Britain is at the heart of this emerging, larger ‘West’ than just the small G-7,” Niblett said.

Analysts say Johnson will want to demonstrat­e that Britain is free from what he has called the “shackles” of the Brussels bureaucrac­y. But already, the Europeans are so frustrated with Johnson’s post-brexit behavior that they’ve sued him — or, rather, they’ve started legal action over alleged breaches of their divorce deal that could eventually haul the country in front of the European Court of Justice.

The central dispute is what’s been dubbed the “Sausage War,” which is really more about chilled meats, in an ongoing row over Britain’s dithering and delays in the enforcemen­t of promised controls and inspection­s of goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea.

In April, pockets of violence flared up on the streets in Northern Ireland, highlighti­ng the region’s fragile peace process.

But leaders have a way of compartmen­talizing issues, and diplomats said there was little reason to expect that Brexit tensions would obstruct other areas of cooperatio­n, such as climate change and Iran. Britain has worked closely with France and Germany this year as it works to salvage the Iran nuclear deal and bring the Biden administra­tion back into the agreement, a complex dance of negotiatio­ns that has not been affected by Brexit or by leaders’ opinions of Johnson.

“There is some hope in Brussels that the U.S. can weigh in to support smoother talks with the U.K. and find a solution to Northern Ireland,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe, the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace.

In their previous phone conversati­ons, Johnson and Biden have spoken about Northern Ireland, and analysts say it will inevitably be raised during their first in-person bilateral meeting on Thursday.

Many U.S. presidents have shown a deep interest in the Northern Ireland peace process, and the Clinton administra­tion was instrument­al in the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

But Biden also has a personal connection and is proud of his family ties to Ireland.

Last year on the campaign trail, BBC correspond­ent Nick Bryant tried to get a quote: “Mr. Biden, a quick word for the BBC?”

“The BBC?” Biden responded, before flashing a smile: “I’m Irish.”

The video went viral. Jennings said he expected Biden would make clear to Johnson nothing can undermine the peace accords in Ireland.

“Biden is clearly a very experience­d foreign policy operator, and it’s absolutely in Boris Johnson’s interests to maintain a good relationsh­ip with the U.S.” Jennings said. “And while Johnson sometimes has a reputation for being, you know, kind of slightly less than serious, I think he’s very capable of playing that role when it is required.”

“The G-7 may give us a fleeting glance of the kind of a profile Boris Johnson might start to look to develop, in a broader global sense.” Will Jennings, a politics professor at the University of Southampto­n

 ?? JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson listens to President Biden during a climate summit in April. Analysts said they expect the leaders to be “profession­als” during this week’s Group of Seven summit.
JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/ASSOCIATED PRESS British Prime Minister Boris Johnson listens to President Biden during a climate summit in April. Analysts said they expect the leaders to be “profession­als” during this week’s Group of Seven summit.

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