Brussels pins hopes on Biden to calm Northern Ireland tensions

Brussels is hoping the arrival of Joe Biden in the UK next week will put pressure on UK prime minister Boris Johnson to agree a plan with the EU to douse post-Brexit tensions in Northern Ireland.

The US president will meet Johnson ahead of next week’s G7 summit in Cornwall and has made it clear he wants to see a resolution of the row over borders which has threatened stability in Northern Ireland.

His arrival in Britain will come just hours after EU and UK officials meet in London to try to resolve their differences over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit treaty which seeks to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“Biden could be instrumental in helping to put the process back on track,” said one EU diplomat. “There’s no mystery around the fact that Biden wants this solved.”

A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said the Biden administration was looking for the UK and the EU “to prioritise political and economic stability in Northern Ireland”.

“We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace,” the spokesperson said, adding that it was vital that the Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland, did “not become a casualty of Brexit”.

The region is on the brink of what could be a hot summer on the streets, with pro-UK unionists angry that the Brexit deal with the EU has imposed some checks on goods being transported between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president, and David Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, are provisionally scheduled to meet on June 9 for a session of the two sides’ Northern Ireland joint committee to try to find a way of making the new border arrangements work more smoothly. The UK angered Brussels in March by unilaterally extending temporary rule exemptions intended to help companies adjust to the new rules.

Biden will arrive in Britain shortly after that meeting and hold talks with Johnson before the G7 starts on June 11. It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders.

“We think the timing will help the process,” the EU diplomat said, insisting the EU had already done “quite a lot” to try to resolve the dispute.

A bust-up between London and Brussels over Northern Ireland would be an inauspicious backdrop to the Johnson-Biden talks. Another senior EU diplomat said: “Joe Biden wants a good relationship with the UK and the EU and wants them to work well together.”

Downing Street insists Britain is doing its best to find ways to make the protocol work and claims the EU is being intransigent.

UK ministers fear tensions could rise, sparking further violence in Northern Ireland as unionists prepare to mark the July 12 anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the victory of protestant William of Orange over the Catholic James II.

British officials claim that Sefcovic, in a BBC interview last Sunday, seemed unable to answer the question of whether he cared more about protecting the EU single market or the Good Friday Agreement.

Sefcovic noted in that interview that respect for the Good Friday Agreement was “not only important to the UK, Ireland, Northern Ireland” but also to the US.

The EU commissioner complained in an interview with the FT last week that the UK had still not provided “the basic answers” to EU concerns about the rollout of the protocol, including the need for EU officials to have real-time access to customs data.

He added that he hoped the two sides could next week agree a detailed joint plan for solving issues around the protocol “so that we can show that actually the work is going on, that we are not just kicking the can down the road”.

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