Joe Biden ordered US officials to rebuke Boris Johnson for jeopardising the peace process in Northern Ireland due to its stand-off with the European Union, it emerged on Wednesday night.
In a significant diplomatic intervention which now threatens to overshadow the G7 summit in Cornwall, America’s most senior diplomat in Britain told the Brexit minister Lord Frost that the UK’s stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol was “inflaming” tensions in Ireland and Europe.
Yael Lempert is said to have issued Lord Frost with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – at a meeting on June 3 in London, during which she relayed to him the US President’s “great concern” over the UK’s approach to the protocol, which was established to prevent a hard Irish border.
A demarche is an official communication or protest to a foreign government that is more commonly lodged with adversaries than a close ally.
The details emerged after Mr Biden’s national security adviser warned ahead of his bilateral meeting with Mr Johnson on Thursday that resolving problems with the protocol was “critical” to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and not imperilling the peace process in the province.
According to a leaked Government memo, obtained by The Times, Ms Lempert said that the dispute over the implementation of post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland was “commanding the attention” of Mr Biden, who is a proud Irish American.
It reportedly went on to state that the US had urged the UK to come to a “negotiated settlement” with the EU, even if that meant making “unpopular compromises”.
“Lempert implied that the UK had been inflaming the rhetoric, by asking if we would keep it ‘cool’.”
However, in a move that is likely to provoke significant anger from Tory Brexiteers, the US suggested that if the UK signed up to EU rules on agricultural standards to ease problems with the protocol Mr Biden would ensure it did not “negatively affect the chances of reaching a US/UK trade deal.”
The UK has repeatedly ruled out aligning with the EU’s food safety and animal health rules, arguing that to do so would bind it to laws set in Brussels and enforced by the European courts.
On Wednesday night UK sources confirmed the details of the meeting, but insisted that the UK and US were united in their determination to maintain peace in Northern Ireland.
The intervention looks set to overshadow Joe Biden's visit to the UK
However, it came just hours after Britain and the European Union appeared to be heading towards a full-scale trade war over Northern Ireland on Wednesday night as Brussels warned that its patience was wearing "very, very, very thin".
During "frank" discussions in London, the Brexit minister Lord Frost said he would not rule out acting unilaterally to prevent a ban on the sale of British sausages in the province from coming into force at the end of the month.
It came despite Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, warning that the EU could ultimately suspend parts of the Brexit trade deal and hit British products with tariffs should the UK choose to extend the grace period on chilled meats.
In a clear show of defiance, one insider involved in the joint committee that oversees the Northern Ireland Protocol told The Telegraph: "David very clearly said he wasn’t taking that off the table.”
Lord Frost also rebuffed EU calls for the UK to solve the row by signing up to a Swiss-style veterinary agreement which would require it to follow the bloc’s food safety rules as they change over time in a process known as "dynamic alignment".
"Obviously we’re not going to accept that," a senior UK official said. "That’s been a fundamental part of our position right from the start."
Lord Frost said after the meeting that there had been no "breakthroughs" but the UK would "carry on talking", while Mr Johnson insisted he still believed a solution was "easily doable".
However, others involved in the talks suggested the UK and EU were heading for a major showdown at the end of the month, with one saying: "As far as I can see, we are going backwards instead of forwards."
Speaking at a press conference in London shortly after 1pm, Mr Sefcovic told reporters: "I can say we are at the crossroads in our relationship with the UK. Trust, which should be at the heart of every partnership, needs to be restored.
"Our patience really is very, very, very thin, and therefore we have to assess all options we have at our disposal."
Having personally warned Lord Frost that extending the grace period would have serious consequences, Mr Sefcovic added: "I was talking about the legal action. I was talking about the arbitration and of course I’m talking about the cross-retaliation.
"If the UK were to take further unilateral action, in the coming weeks, the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by the international law obligations."
Asked whether he trusted Lord Frost, Mr Sefcovic said their relationship had got off to a bad start after the Brexit minister chose earlier this year to extend other grace periods for supermarkets and parcel couriers just hours before their first phone call.
Maros Sefcovic again urged Britain to submit to a Swiss-style agreement
Credit: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Mr Sefcovic again urged Britain to submit to a Swiss-style agreement, which he said would remove 80 per cent of checks on agrifoods "just like that" and was "tangible, credible, easy to do, and which could be accomplished very quickly".
However, pushing back on Wednesday night, a senior UK official close to the negotiations said: "The EU assert that if we were to sign up to dynamic alignment that would get rid of 80 per cent of all the checks.
"What they don’t say is that for that to happen we would have to accept that the rules were policed by the Commission, would have direct effect in the UK, and the European Court would police them.
The UK will instead continue to push for an agreement that closely mirrors the EU’s deal with New Zealand, which is based on "equivalence" – a recognition of mutually high standards.
But should they fail to break the deadlock, the official suggested that ministers were unfazed by EU retaliation, adding that the UK had "got used to living in an atmosphere where there are threats made to us".
"We hope they won’t actually go down that road, but we have learnt to look at this rather philosophically and in the light of experience," they added.