LONDON/BRUSSELS – Boris Johnson is about to feel the pinch of Brexit Britain’s new global status: squeezed on one side by Europeans in no mood to yield, and on the other by a United States driving a hard bargain for its economic support.
With a deepening political crisis at home, Johnson makes his international debut at a gathering of G7 leaders in the French resort of Biarritz on Saturday, less than three months before the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union.
With no sign of an exit deal being agreed upon by then, the world’s fifth-largest economy is on course for a messy divorce from its biggest trading partner and looking across the Atlantic to President Donald Trump for a new trade deal and support.
The three-day meeting in southwest France will lay bare the new realities for Britain: collapsing influence in Europe and growing dependency on the United States. Neither is a comfortable position for New York-born Johnson, who took office with a swagger last month promising Brexit by Oct. 31 no matter what.
“The U.K. risks being stuck uncomfortably between a United States it disagrees with and a Europe it will struggle to influence,” said Thomas Raines, head of the Europe Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House.
Ever since World War II, Britain has tried to temper Europe’s drive for integration with a so-called special relationship with the United States. Brexit forces a departure from that strategy.
Britain’s exit from the EU is not on the agenda for the meeting, attended by the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and the EU, but is expected to feature heavily in discussions on its sidelines.
With Johnson insisting on re-opening a previously negotiated exit agreement that the British Parliament rejected three times and that Brussels says cannot be reopened, a no-deal Brexit is seen as an increasingly likely outcome.
Both sides say they do not want it to happen, but will be prepared for that outcome. The EU insists Britain will be hit hardest and leaked British government “worst case” planning documents show possible food, fuel, and medicine shortages.
Short-term disruption aside, Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, said the long-term implications could be even more damaging, isolating Britain from its closest neighbor.
“The real danger of a no-deal Brexit … is the political implications, and for a long while there will be an ice age between the EU and the U.K.,” Wolff said.
“Then Trump says (to the U.K.), ‘I’m your buddy’ — and potentially drives a wedge between the EU and the U.K..”
Ahead of the G7 meeting Johnson travels to Berlin and Paris, having failed to break the impasse with a letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk.
British government sources said they did not expect a breakthrough this week, or at the G7.
“In Biarritz, the EU side will hold its ground on Brexit,” said one EU official dealing with Brexit. “We don’t expect much to be agreed on Brexit there, even if some interesting exchanges may take place.”
EU sources said Brussels was instead waiting to see if Britain’s Parliament, where a small majority is also opposed to leaving the bloc without a deal, could force Johnson into delaying or halting the exit process.
In contrast, Johnson’s pre-summit phone call on Monday with Trump prompted an enthusiastic response from the U.S. leader:
“Great discussion with Prime Minister @BorisJohnson today. We talked about Brexit and how we can move rapidly on a U.S.-U.K. free trade deal. I look forward to meeting with Boris this weekend, at the @G-7, in France!” Trump said on Twitter.
Earlier this month senior Trump aide John Bolton visited London carrying a message from his boss that the United States would set aside foreign policy differences and focus on doing whatever it could to help Britain through the Brexit process.
But, even though Johnson and other pro-Brexit advocates argue that the United States will be a crucial ally for a Britain unshackled from EU trade policy, Trump’s support is likely to come at a price.
Britain has long been the United States’ closest military ally, but its status as an influential player in the EU has also given it clout to diverge from Washington when it disagrees — something it has frequently done since Trump came to power.
“At the point at which it is leaving the EU, it finds itself much closer to the European position on most big issues than to the Trump administration: on climate change, on international trade, on the Iran (nuclear) deal,” Raines said.
That leaves Johnson caught between European and U.S. thinking. He will need to avoid angering a volatile Trump and risking trade ties, but also to be wary of alienating himself from other leaders who have a more multilateral approach to world politics.
“Boris should not attempt to corral his fellow heads of government into a common line on every issue, nor set himself up as the go-between for the U.S. and Europe,” former British foreign minister William Hague wrote in the Telegraph newspaper.
“Such efforts would be doomed to fail, for now at least, and more likely to end in ridicule than renown.”