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Britain’s Johnson to host G-7, trying to smooth global tensions with congeniality

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

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 after-dinner 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"?

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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 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 are 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.

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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 -- 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 less-developed 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.

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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 formally left the EU, 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 post-divorce patch with the EU, 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 UK-US 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.

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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 on climate change or 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 US can weigh in to support smoother talks with the UK 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.

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Many US presidents have shown a deep interest in the Northern Ireland peace process, and the Clinton administration was instrumental to 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 US,” 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.”