When EU leaders came blinking out into the Cornish sun on Saturday morning and spotted the HMS Tamar floating just off the coast they may well have thought it looked familiar.
Ominously camouflaged and equipped with enough heavy weaponry to take out a rival vessel, the Royal Navy ship was sent to Jersey only last month to police French and British fishermen who were clashing over Brexit changes.
Now it was dominating the horizon off Carbis Bay as the most powerful EU politicians prepared to give Boris Johnson a concerted dressing down. As one member of the UK delegation noted, the ship had been brought closer to shore ahead of Saturday’s crunch talks.
This G7 summit was meant to be the moment the Prime Minister finally took his place front and centre on the world stage. After two years of firefighting crises in Number 10 – first the Brexit logjam, then Covid-19 – it was a chance to look forward and outwards.
As a child, Mr Johnson had once declared he wanted to be “world king”. The start of the summit’s first session, when Mr Johnson outlined his vision for global pandemic recovery while other leaders sat silently and listened, is perhaps the closest he will come to achieving that goal.
The pictures told a similar story. The elbow-to-elbow greetings on the beach, the back pats and bonhomie, woven together with generic compliments, all projected a message of unity in the first in-person G7 gathering for almost two years.
But in reality, a familiar cloud loomed: Brexit tensions.
The offshore naval vessel HMS Tamar patrols the waters off St Ives, Cornwall
Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty
Number 10 officials feared the worst when they awoke on Thursday morning to a Times front page which revealed the Government’s Brexit lead, Lord Frost, had been formally dressed down by the US embassy.
News of the demarche – a diplomatic telling off – over Britain’s threats to unilaterally breach elements of the Northern Irish Protocol, an agreement which places customs checks on goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland to keep the Irish land border open, had them braced for Joe Biden’s arrival.
So there was relief when the US president, meeting Mr Johnson for the first time, declined to publicly weigh in on the side of Brussels over the row. Instead the US president was all smiles for the cameras – joking about how both men had married above their standing – and cooperative in private, according to the UK side.
Mr Biden was said to have displayed all the folksy charm that is at the core of his political image back in America during their one hour and 20 minute chat. The leaders bonded over history, specifically Winston Churchill, as they recalled the finest hour of US-UK relations during the Second World War, according to one source familiar with their discussion.
The glowing ‘love in’ front pages that followed left Downing Street delighted. So too was it smooth sailing with non-European leaders. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister sporting a surfer dude haircut, who offered trade deal progress in his talks.
But then came Saturday morning and the hat-trick of bilaterals with the EU leaders: First France’s Emmanuel Macron, then Germany’s Angela Merkel, and finally the presidents of the European Commission and Council, respectively Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel.
Alongside the Prime Minister was his Brexit enforcer, the government minister Lord Frost, who wore socks emblazoned with Union Jacks. “That was a bit weird," an EU official told Politico. “As if we didn’t know he came from the UK.”
The first meeting was the most contentious. Mr Macron had long signposted his willingness to use Mr Johnson’s moment in the global spotlight to turn the screw on Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the The President of France Emmanuel Macron talking to a Red Arrows pilot at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall
Credit: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing St
Before jetting into Cornwall the French President had warned there would be no negotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed only in December before Brexit. There, he tweeted a photo of all the key EU leaders sitting together vowing “the same union, the same determination to act”.
The Macron-Johnson meeting was less than an hour; the mood, far from genial. “Serious but forthright on all sides” was how a UK Government source characterised all three meetings.
“It wasn’t an argument. It wasn’t a row. But it was a very serious and forthright presentation of issues on our side. To be fair the EU was also very firm on implementation. That for us suggests they’re not looking that closely at changes.”
At one point, pushing back on customs checks to be applied on chilled meats moved from Britain into Northern Ireland that start next month, Mr Johnson made a French comparison.
“How would you like it if the French courts stopped you moving Toulouse sausages to Paris?” Mr Johnson told his counterpart.
Mr Macron, according to the UK Government source, replied that it was not a good comparison because Paris and Toulouse are both part of the same country.
“Northern Ireland and Britain are part of the same country as well”, Mr Johnson was said to have responded. Afterwards he expressed incredulity to aides before hinting at the comment in a television interview.
"I’ve talked to some of our friends here today who do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory. I think they just need to get that into their heads,” the Prime Minister told Sky News.
Mr Macron’s team was also spinning a tough line. "The President told Boris Johnson there needed to be a reset of the Franco-British relationship,” a source close to Mr Macron told Reuters. “This can happen provided that he keeps his word with the Europeans.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Credit: REUTERS/Phil Noble/Pool
Ms Merkel struck a similar line to her French counterpart, according to the UK side. Throughout the morning it became clear that the EU leaders had both coordinated on their arguments and were not willing to budge on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The German Chancellor argued that she was willing to try to come up with “pragmatic” solutions – a word Downing Street often repeats as it seeks compromises over customs checks – but made clear the treaty could not simply be ripped up by the British.
The third meeting was less political. Instead Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Michel, in the words of the UK Government source, spoke as if they were reading from a “script”.
The pair told Mr Johnson the “rhetoric needs to be toned down” over Northern Ireland, according to an EU official – a thinly veiled rebuke of the Prime Minister and his team.
They also pledged that the EU nations were in total alignment on the need to implement the Northern Irish protocol, both tweeting afterwards: “Both sides must implement what we agreed on. There is complete EU unity on this.”
In his media round at lunch time, Mr Boris made clear he remains prepared to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allows either side to act unilaterally if the protocol "leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist".
That could now happen within weeks, given checks on chilled meat imports into Northern Ireland will kick in on July 1 unless something changes between now and then. As the sun dipped on the world leaders’ BBQ on the beach, no amount of smoked scallops and sea shanties could hide the reality: the EU and Britain are now on the brink of a sausage trade war.