With patience wearing thin in Brussels over the so-called “sausage wars” in Northern Ireland, the prime minister faces a quartet of the EU’s most powerful politicians in a bruising set of early-morning encounters at the G7 summit in Cornwall on Saturday.
As the UK calls for flexibility from the EU following the collapse of talks last week, one of Ms Von der Leyen’s closest aides told The Independent that she would have a simple message for the PM: “Now is the time for the UK to deliver on the commitments it has made.”
The message is likely to be forcefully repeated by French president Emmanuel Macron, who used an eve-of-summit press conference to declare that nothing in the Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019 is open for renegotiation.
As the row threatened to overshadow the PM’s first outing as host of an international gathering, he took the unusual step of inviting his Brexit minister Lord Frost, who was responsible for negotiating the protocol, to join the presidents and prime ministers at the Carbis Bay beach resort.
Downing Street insists that the UK is still working with the EU to find “radical” solutions to trade disruptions between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. The UK accepts that the EU has not breached the terms of Mr Johnson’s protocol, which establishes a customs border in the Irish Sea, but accuses Brussels of implementing it in too “purist” a way.
Mr Johnson will start the second day of the summit with an 8am meeting with Macron, followed shortly afterwards by talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel and then Ms Von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, all of which are likely to be dominated by the stand-off over movements of food products between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Britain is threatening unilaterally to extend a “grace period” under which it does not observe elements of the protocol, in order to avert a ban on sales of chilled meats like sausages and minced meat to Northern Ireland coming into effect at the end of this month.
The move would breach the terms of Mr Johnson’s deal, and commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic left no doubt it could lead to legal action or the imposition of tariffs or quotas on UK exports.
Ms Von der Leyen’s spokesman Eric Mamer told The Independent that the commission had made its position “abundantly clear” in the run-up to the Cornwall summit.
“We are very flexible, we have shown that we are flexible by granting grace periods, etcetera, but that also means the protocol must be applied,” he said. “That is certainly what she will tell Boris Johnson.”
He added: “Ultimately the UK signed up to a deal going forward and that deal includes a certain number of arrangements, including controls. That was abundantly clear when the deal was negotiated and therefore it is obvious that we expect the UK to live up to those commitments.
“We can’t simply throw away the protocol.”
Mr Johnson told the BBC on Friday that there were “ways of enforcing the protocol, ways of making it work, that may be excessively burdensome”.
He claimed that 20 per cent of the checks being conducted across the whole of the perimeter of the EU were now being done in Northern Ireland, which he said was three times as many as happen in the Netherlands’ giant international container shipping terminal in Rotterdam.
And foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested the onus was on Brussels to make concessions, telling ITV News: “The EU have got to make this protocol work the way it was intended for all sides, for all communities in Northern Ireland, not just for EU integrity, but for the economic integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom.”
The PM’s official spokesman told reporters: “We’re seeking to urgently come up with radical proposals within the protocol to find a way forward.
“I think it’s fair to say [the issue] may well come up, but the prime minister was clear yesterday that this is not the forum in which he is necessarily seeking to come up with an immediate solution ... Clearly he will want to discuss it with those that raise it with him ... He may choose to raise it himself.”
The first day of the summit saw displays of unity among the EU leaders, with Ms Von der Leyen, Mr Michel, Mr Macron, Ms Merkel and Italian PM Mario Draghi gathering to discuss joint positions before the official opening of the event.
Tweeting a picture of the first such pre-summit talks to take place without the UK as a result of Brexit, Mr Macron pointedly said they showed “as always, the same unity, the same determination to act, the same enthusiasm”.
Following talks on recovery from Covid-19, the leaders were spending Friday evening at a lavish reception in the presence of the Queen at Cornwall’s Eden Project.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also took part in their first G7 events, while the Prince of Wales addressed political and business leaders on the need for sustainability.
With the focus on avoiding the spread of coronavirus, Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie bumped elbows with the visiting leaders in place of the pre-pandemic handshakes.
The seaside location led Jill Biden to joke: “I feel like we are at a wedding,” while the newlywed prime minister said it was like “walking down the aisle”.
President Biden urged the watching media to go swimming, quipping: “Everyone in the water.”
The lure of the sea has already tempted Mr Johnson, who went for a dip on both Thursday and Friday.