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Boris Johnson’s double Donald dilemma

LONDON — For Boris Johnson, the G7 will be a tale of two Donalds.

The new U.K. prime minister flies into Biarritz Saturday lunchtime, determined to show the world Britain has its mojo back. The centerpiece of his weekend is a meeting first thing Sunday with Donald Trump. Hours later, Johnson will come face-to-face with Donald Tusk.

“My message to G7 leaders this week is this: The Britain I lead will be an international, outward-looking, self-confident nation,” Johnson said in his pre-summit statement. Those who think Brexit — even the no-deal Brexit he is prepared to enact in just 10 weeks’ time — means the U.K. retreating from the world are “gravely mistaken,” he added.

If the Trump meeting is likely to be hailed by Johnson as an exemplar of the U.K.’s new place in the world, the Tusk one will be a reminder of the fractious Brexit process he needs to navigate before he can pursue that agenda with gusto.

In truth, neither head-to-head will be easy. While in style Johnson might appear to share the straight-talking rambunctiousness of his North American ally, in substance many of the prime minister’s policy positions remain closely aligned with those of his continental counterparts. Play too nicely with one and he risks antagonizing the other — or worse still, being stranded, lonely in the middle.

European Council President Donald Tusk | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Trump might talk up his good relations with Johnson, choose the prime minister as his first bilateral of the summit and discuss the agenda with him by phone beforehand, and Johnson may enjoy sharing the limelight with a U.S. president, but the two countries are far apart on key foreign policy questions, particularly on Iran and climate change. Regarding a new U.S.-U.K. trade deal, despite public confidence, officials in London are under no illusions about the serious hurdles that need to be overcome.

As for Tusk-Johnson, the European Council president said in February said there is a “special place in hell” for those who championed Brexit without a plan to carry it out. Most thought he was referring to Johnson, the champion of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, who was then a backbench MP opposing Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

As fellow leaders, their diplomatic relations haven’t been much more cordial. This week, Tusk responded to a letter from Johnson requesting that a key pillar of May’s deal — the Northern Ireland backstop — be removed, by effectively accusing the U.K. prime minister of wanting to reimpose a hard border on the island of Ireland.

And despite some warm words and mixed messages from Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel this week, a new deal before October 31 that could avert an economically disruptive, crashout Brexit still looks unlikely, and Johnson knows it.

“I want to caution everybody, OK? Because this is not going to be a cinch, this is not going to be easy. We will have to work very hard to get this thing done,” he told broadcasters on Friday. No wonder then that the other message Johnson intends to convey to Tusk on Sunday, according to officials, is that the U.K. really means it (this time) when it says it will leave with no deal.

Looking both ways

The paradox of Boris Johnson’s G7 agenda is that while the Trump meeting is at its heart, his other key messages could hardly sound more different to those of the U.S. president.

A convinced advocate of global action to combat climate change and protect the environment, the U.K. prime minister joined French President Emmanuel Macron in advance of the summit in highlighting the seriousness of the “heartbreaking” Amazon rainforest fire.

On Russia, he opposes Trump’s wish to invite President Vladimir Putin back into the G7 fold, and on perhaps the most pressing foreign policy issue on the summit agenda — Iran — he stands with France and Germany.

U.K. officials indicated in advance of the summit that there is no change in the U.K.’s support for the nuclear deal, and that London, despite the change of leadership, is still not supportive of the U.S. “maximum pressure” on Iran strategy.

New Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is, one official said, more inclined to a hard-line stance on Iran than his predecessor, Jeremy Hunt (Johnson’s vanquished leadership rival), but the overall direction of U.K. foreign policy — on this and much else — has not radically changed.

This much was clear from Johnson’s pre-summit statement.

“We face unprecedented global challenges at the very time when public trust in the institutions designed to address them risks being undermined,” he said. “International tensions and new trade barriers are threatening global growth. Violence and conflict are trapping countries in poverty, depriving children, and particularly girls, of the universal right to education. Climate change is accelerating the devastating and unprecedented loss of habitats and species.”

It’s not a pitch tailor-made to appeal to Donald Trump.

Nor will the two leaders necessarily find an easy path to a new trade deal between their countries. In private, U.K. officials recognize the difficulties involved in securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. — namely ensuring protection for U.K. farmers and the NHS, while persuading Washington to open up the U.S. market to the U.K.’s services firms.

Boris Johnson (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump greet before a meeting on United Nations Reform at UN headquarters in New York on September 18, 2017. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Talk of a series of mini-deals, promoted by Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton on a recent visit to London, is not considered viable in London, and Downing Street is downplaying any suggestion of a timetable for negotiations emerging from the Trump-Johnson meeting.

“The prime minister and president have both repeatedly expressed their commitment to delivering an ambitious U.K.-U.S. free-trade agreement and to starting negotiations as soon as possible,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.  “Of course we want to move quickly, but we want to get the right deal that works for both sides.”

Johnson’s real fight back home

And then, of course, there’s Brexit.

Angela Merkel’s suggestion on Wednesday of a 30-day timetable to find a solution briefly raised hopes in the U.K. that the EU might climb down from its refusal to countenance a reopening of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement struck with May.

However, EU officials have been clear that there has been no change of position and that it is still up to the U.K. to come up with what Tusk on Monday called “realistic alternatives” to the Northern Ireland backstop plan.

While Macron hinted on Thursday at more talks led by the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the EU has not dropped its insistence that the backstop stays in the Withdrawal Agreement.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As Merkel in particular emphasized, the non-legally binding Political Declaration on the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU — the second element of the Brexit deal — can be changed, and Barnier is authorized to start talking about that. But without changes to the Withdrawal Agreement the U.K. won’t be at the table — so deadlock looks likely to persist.

EU leaders also have half an eye on Johnson’s home front. MPs return to parliament in little over a week’s time, and opposition parties and Conservative rebels are expected to fight tooth and nail to block Johnson from taking the U.K. out of the EU on October 31 without a deal. While it is not yet a public position, many government officials are convinced Johnson will seek an election to prevent the House of Commons — where he has a majority of one — standing in his way.

For now, that is where Johnson’s real fight lies, and until he wins it, his fellow G7 leaders will be justified in wondering how long his tenure as a member of their exclusive club will be.

David Herszenhorn and Gaby Orr contributed reporting for this article.

Let the Brexit blame game begin

LONDON — Boris Johnson asked EU leaders to help him out on Brexit, and they told him: You’re on your own, pal.

The prime minister fist-bumped the air and lauded the “blistering timetable” proposed by Angela Merkel to find an alternative to the Brexit backstop on Wednesday as the two held a joint press conference in Berlin. He was pleased as punch with what he clearly saw as a win, telling reporters: “I’m more than happy with that.”

“I see possibilities, shaping the future relationship, to address this point,” Merkel had said before the pair sat down to dinner. “It was said we will probably find a solution in two years,” she added. “We can maybe find it in the next 30 days.”

Much of the British press had a field day. “30 days to do a deal,” screeched the front page of the Daily Express. “30 days to ditch the backstop,” cried the Daily Telegraph. The Sun could hardly contain itself, with: “Can we do it? Ja, we can!”

But just hours after Merkel appeared to set the deadline, Downing Street became less excitable. “It’s not a literal deadline and wasn’t intended that way,” an official told POLITICO. “We are of course working at pace for a deal but only if the backstop is abolished.”

Those who felt Theresa May did not do enough to carve out the backstop may be happy, but the “alternative arrangements” plan is unlikely to fly with the EU.

The official was right that the deadline was not literal. “It is not about 30 days,” Merkel said at a news conference in The Hague on Thursday. “The 30 days were meant as an example to highlight the fact that we need to achieve it in a short time because Britain had said they want to leave the European Union on October 31.”

Merkel appears to have set Johnson a near-impossible task. The German chancellor made clear it was up to the U.K. to come up with a permanent solution that would remove the need for a backstop but offered no hint that the Withdrawal Agreement could be reopened. It would mean Johnson coming up with a long-term fix to the border problem that could be written into the Political Declaration on the future relationship.

Rather than opening a window of opportunity, she offered Johnson a rope on which to hang himself if the U.K. ends up leaving without a deal.

“What she was saying was: We are where we have always been,” said Anand Menon, director of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, who sees the words from Merkel as part of a blame-game strategy.

Emmanuel Macron took the stage with Boris Johnson in Paris saying that without a workable proposal the backstop is a ‘British political problem’ | Christophe Petit Tesson/AFP via Getty Images

“I’m sure they have thought this through in terms of what strategy is most effective for blame avoidance,” he explained. “And this is the way that the European Union can make it sound like they are being reasonable.”

The approach was cemented Thursday when French President Emmanuel Macron took the stage with Johnson in Paris. Macron said that without a workable proposal on the backstop, “it’s a British political problem and then it’s not negotiation that can solve it, it’s a political choice that the prime minister will have to make, not up to us.”

He added: “I’ll be very clear, in the next month we won’t find a new Withdrawal Agreement that will be very different from what we have.”

Johnson will not be looking very far for a proposal. He cited a blueprint drawn up by the so-called Alternative Arrangements Commission, a group of mainly Conservative MPs which penned a document claiming an alternative system could be in place in three years. It suggested “special economic zones” around the Northern Irish border that would be exempt from normal regulatory requirements. It also proposed using trusted trader schemes and said the Republic of Ireland should align with the U.K. on food safety regulations.

His support for the plan will rally some in the domestic audience. One Cabinet minister said: “The PM has managed to get alternative arrangements on the agenda now and the difference with this administration is that they will actually table them for discussion.”

Boris Johnson has a major challenge on his hands to meet his promise of Brexit by the end of October.

Those who felt Theresa May did not do enough to carve out the backstop may be happy. But the “alternative arrangements” plan is unlikely to fly with the EU, and would still need a longer transition period of up to three years.

Whether or not a deadline of 30 days exists, Johnson has precious little time to get anything agreed. EU leaders will be looking towards the European Council summit starting on October 17 as the key date to rubber stamp something new. They will need some time before that to thrash out any new proposals and come up with a legal framework, which could explain why Macron wanted “visibility” in the next month.

And then there is the U.K. parliament. Any deal will have to be voted on in the Commons and then be laid out in a bill to implement the details into U.K. law. That bill would include transition issues and the divorce settlement — touch-paper issues for some MPs. Then it will have to pass through the Lords, which the government has no control over.

“In terms of the legislative challenge, it would be remarkable if a bill of the complexity of the ‘withdrawal agreement bill’ were to be pushed through in (even) a month to six weeks, let alone a fortnight,” one legislative expert said via text message. As a best case scenario, they predicted a technical extension to cover the legislation or a desperate rush to meet the October 31 deadline, probably with a reduced or cancelled conference recess.

Johnson has a major challenge on his hands to meet his promise of Brexit by the end of October. And EU leaders have made sure the challenge is all his.

This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Pro subscribers. Sign up here.

Merkel: I didn’t mean 30 days as a fixed Brexit deadline

BERLIN — When Angela Merkel said a no-deal Brexit could be averted within 30 days, she didn’t actually mean 30 days.

The German chancellor told Boris Johnson on Wednesday she sees “possibilities” to solve the Irish backstop problem and avoid a no-deal Brexit but it is up to the U.K. to come up with a workable plan. “We can maybe find it in the next 30 days,” the chancellor said, standing alongside Johnson in Berlin.

A day later and Merkel clarified what she meant. “I said that what one can achieve in three or two years can also be achieved in 30 days,” she said during a visit to The Hague, according to Reuters.

“The 30 days were meant as an example to highlight the fact that we need to achieve it in a short time because Britain had said they want to leave the European Union on October 31,” Merkel said.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that the U.K. and EU will not be able to find a new Brexit agreement that’s different to the existing one in 30 days.

Macron to Johnson: ‘Different’ Brexit agreement not possible in 30 days

PARIS — The U.K. and the EU will not be able to find a new Brexit agreement that’s different to the existing one in 30 days, French President Emmanuel Macron said, ahead of his first meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Setting a one-month deadline for a breakthrough, Macron said he agrees with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the EU needs “visibility” on the way forward on Brexit within 30 days and that leaders would not “wait till October 31 without trying to find a solution” to the vexed question of the Irish backstop.

Johnson, who wants to remove the backstop plan from the Withdrawal Agreement, insisted that he wants a deal and has been “powerfully encouraged” by his meeting with Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday.

“What Angela Merkel was saying last night … was if we can do this in two years we can do this in 30 days and I admired that can-do spirit she had there. And I think she’s right, I think the technical solutions are readily available,” he said, standing alongside Macron outside the Elysée Palace.

However, while showing an openness to talks in the coming days involving the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, Macron made clear that any agreement must “conform to … two objectives”: protecting “stability” on the island of Ireland and the integrity of the European single market.

“I’ll be very clear, in the next month we won’t find a new Withdrawal Agreement that will be very different from what we have,” Macron said.

“If there are things that in the context of what was negotiated by Michel Barnier can be adapted and conform to the two objectives I cited, stability in Ireland, integrity of the single market, we must find them in the next month, otherwise it means the problem is deeper, that it’s more political, that it’s a British political problem and then it’s not negotiation that can solve it, it’s a political choice that the prime minister will have to make, not up to us.”

However, Johnson insisted twice that the U.K. would “under no circumstances” impose “checks or controls of any kind” at the Irish border.

Macron said that while he has “always been presented as the toughest in the group” of EU leaders, this is simply because he has “always been clear a choice was made [by the U.K.] and we cannot just ignore it.”

Asked precisely what his alternative to the backstop would be, Johnson cited technical solutions, including “electronic pre-clearing for goods moving across the border” as well as trusted-trader schemes. Pressed for more detail he cited a report drawn up by former U.K. junior Trade Minister Greg Hands, and “MPs from all parties” — an apparent reference to a July report by a group of MPs and peers called the Alternative Arrangements Commission. The commission’s parliamentary advisory group is made up largely of Brexit-supporting MPs, 29 of whom are Conservatives, two from the Democratic Unionist Party, and just one from Labour.

Macron said it is up to leaders to now have a “useful month.” Ending the press conference, he turned to Johnson to say: “Let’s work.”

Macron’s masterplan for Trump, the universe and everything

PARIS — Another G7 summit blown apart by Donald Trump? Not on Emmanuel Macron’s watch.

Last year’s gathering of G7 leaders ended in chaos after Trump abruptly announced via Twitter that he would not support the just-agreed summit communiqué, apparently out of anger over comments made by the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The French president is determined not to let his American counterpart steal the show this year in the beach town of Biarritz in southwest  France so he has come up with a cunning plan: There will be no communiqué.

But that doesn’t mean Macron lacks ambition when it comes to the summit, which will run from Saturday to Monday.

As Macron expounded in a two-and-a-half-hour briefing for reporters on Wednesday night, he views the gathering as a key moment in his drive to save what he sees as an endangered multilateral liberal world order.

In his marathon briefing, Macron declared that France has a “particular responsibility” in a pivotal reshaping of the global liberal order.

He will have his work cut out, and not just when it comes to trying to keep Trump and the other leaders even vaguely on the same page. The summit takes place at a time of multiple crises around the world.

Trump is engaged in feuds on multiple fronts — from a trade war with China to a bizarre battle with Denmark over the idea of buying Greenland. New U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is immersed in battles at home and abroad over Brexit. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will likely attend the summit after his government collapsed. Angela Merkel is facing a weakening German economy.

And that’s without even getting into the deep international disagreements over issues as diverse as Iran and climate change.

In his marathon briefing, Macron declared that France has a “particular responsibility” in a pivotal reshaping of the global liberal order. Otherwise, “Europe is at risk of fading … and losing its sovereignty,” or worse — “becoming vassals.”

Here are some of the key points in Macron’s strategy for handling the G7.

Trump containment

Though Macron conceded he and the U.S. president “don’t think the same thing about the global order, we don’t have the same objectives,” (which are pretty fundamental disagreements), he highlighted that “President Trump hasn’t been to any country as often as he has been to France. The G7 will be his fourth visit since the beginning of my term, [this] is useful to coordinate things because otherwise, divergences grow.”

And while Macron is aware that “with President Trump, when it’s a campaign promise, you can’t convince him otherwise,” as was the case with the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and waging a trade war with China, all of which have had destabilizing effects on Europe, he chose to focus on when they’ve “been able to achieve real things together.” As examples he cited convincing Trump not to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria and the U.S. president’s decision to carry out joint airstrikes in Syria in 2018 with the U.K. and France in response to a reported chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government.

No backing down on Brexit

Macron, who is having a working lunch with Johnson in Paris on Thursday, didn’t mince his words on the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

“A hard Brexit … will be the responsibility of the British government,” he said.

“It was the British people who decided on Brexit, and the British government has the possibility up to the last second to revoke Article 50,” Macron continued.

He said a renegotiation of the Brexit deal to remove the Irish border backstop provision, as suggested this week by Johnson, “is not an option … because what Johnson suggests in the letter he sent … is to choose between the integrity of the European market and the respect of the Good Friday Agreement. We wouldn’t choose between these two.”

And as for the much-vaunted trade deal the U.K. would make with the U.S., Macron argued it will not compensate for the cost of Brexit, and would come at “the cost of a historic vassalization.”

“I don’t think it’s the will of the British people … to become the junior partner of the U.S.”

Russia rebuff

A day after the White House claimed Macron suggested that Trump invite Russia to the G7 next year, Macron rebuffed that claim.

He said major progress in the conflict in Ukraine would have to be found before Moscow could be welcomed back into the fold.

“It’s pertinent that, eventually, Russia be able to return to the G8 but … the indispensable preliminary condition … is that a solution be found, in connection with Ukraine, on the basis of the Minsk Agreement to resolve the issue,” he said.

He went further, in what could have been a dig at Trump, who has expressed support for reinstating Russia to the G8, apparently without conditions.

“I think saying that Russia can return to the table without any conditions is enacting the weakness of the G7,” he said. “It would be a strategic mistake and a profound injustice.”

Nevertheless, Macron said he is cautiously optimistic that conditions can be met to hold a summit in the coming weeks in Paris between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany to negotiate the end to the conflict in Ukraine.

“We can go forward on an exchange of prisoners, I had a long conversation with [Vladimir Putin] on this and he is ready, we can move forward on the Donbass [region], on demilitarization,” he said. “The [Russian and Ukrainian] presidents seem ready to go forward.”

Doubling down on tech tax

Macron said it was a “crazy” system that allows giant companies like Google or Facebook to avoid paying taxes in countries where they operate, giving them access to a “constant tax haven.”

But he stressed that the 3 percent digital tax he spearheaded —  adopted by nine other European countries after failing to get it adopted on the EU level — did not exclusively target American companies, but rather companies with a certain level of revenue.

The tax drew Trump’s ire, and prompted him to threaten to impose a 100 percent tax on French wine. But Macron pointed out that Trump’s treasury secretary had, along with other G7 finance ministers, signed on last month to the principle of tech companies being taxed in the countries where they make money.

Macron is standing firm on the issue, even if Trump says his European allies blame the French leader when they get criticized for the measure.

“That’s what President Trump told me last night — ‘they all say it’s you,'” Macron recalled. “OK, well I own it.”

Tusk slams lack of ‘realistic alternatives’ on Brexit backstop

Donald Tusk responded to Boris Johnson’s call to drop the Irish backstop from any Brexit deal, saying that anyone “not proposing realistic alternatives” to the backstop does “in fact support reestablishing a border. Even if they do not admit it.”

The European Council president said on Twitter on Tuesday that the backstop “is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found.”

In a letter to Tusk on Monday, Johnson said the U.K. could legislate to ensure no infrastructure on the Irish border and urged the EU to do the same. He also said the two sides should discuss so-called “alternative arrangements” for policing the border, and promised to make other “commitments” in case the measures are not ready by the final departure date.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said Tusk’s tweet was a “reaction that we share.”

“We welcome the U.K. government’s engagement and continued commitment to an orderly withdrawal,” she said. “However, we also know that the letter doesn’t provide a legal operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, it doesn’t set out what any alternative arrangements could be, and in fact it recognizes that there is no guarantee that such an arrangement will be in place by the end of the transitional period.”

However, she said this was not the time for “blame games.”

Tusk will formally reply to Johnson’s letter, Bertaud said, but “so far we have not received request for bilateral meeting from our side” from the U.K.

Boris Johnson appeals directly to Donald Tusk to scrap Brexit backstop

LONDON — Boris Johnson appealed to European Council President Donald Tusk directly on Monday, asking that Brussels consider a solution for the Irish border that doesn’t involve the so-called Brexit backstop.

In a letter to Tusk, effectively an attempt to open Brexit negotiations, the prime minister said the U.K. could legislate to ensure no infrastructure on the border and urged the EU to do the same.

He also said the two sides should discuss so-called “alternative arrangements” for policing the border, and promised to make other “commitments” in case the measures are not ready by the final departure date.

Johnson made the appeal ahead of meetings this week with EU leaders, as well as the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. He has vowed to take the U.K. out of the bloc deal or no deal by October 31.

He has also insisted the backstop — a plan to ensure the Northern Irish border remains open after a no-deal Brexit — must be removed from the Brexit deal Theresa May struck with EU leaders.

In his letter to Tusk, Johnson said: “The changes we seek relate primarily to the backstop. The problems with the backstop run much deeper than the simple political reality that it has three times been rejected by the House of Commons.”

Johnson argued the backstop was inconsistent with U.K. sovereignty and its planned future outside the EU, and could weaken the “delicate balance” of the Northern Irish peace deal.

“The government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he wrote. “We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

He also said the backstop should be replaced with alternative arrangements, proposals for which include technological solutions such as trusted trader schemes, “as far as possible” before the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020.

“I also recognise there will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period,” Johnson wrote. “We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help, consistent with the principles set out in this letter.”

Brussels has repeatedly said it will not reopen May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and said technology won’t be able to replace the backstop.

On Wednesday, Johnson will travel to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before heading to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, followed by the G7 summit over the weekend.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated on which days Johnson would meet Merkel and Macron.

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