Johnson Walks Tightrope at G7, as Trump Pledges ‘Very Big Trade Deal’ for U.K.

LONDON — At his first international summit meeting as prime minister of Britain, Boris Johnson won approval for his approach to Brexit from President Trump, who praised the new leader as the “right man for the job” and promised a “very big trade deal” with the United States.

The comments, which followed a meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 7 meeting in Biarritz, France, would appear to be a victory for Mr. Johnson, who has promised to withdraw Britain from the European Union by the Oct. 31 deadline, with or without an agreement. He needs a favorable trade deal with the United States to cushion economic losses from loosening ties to the bloc, Britain’s biggest trade partner.

But Mr. Johnson responded cautiously about the prospect of such a trade pact, saying that reaching an agreement “may take some time” and would require compromises from Washington.

The encounter between the two leaders — their first face-to-face meeting since Mr. Johnson became prime minister last month — illustrated the diplomatic hurdles confronting Mr. Johnson. With speculation growing that Britain is heading for a general election in the fall, he must tread carefully.

ImageAnti-Brexit protesters in London last month. Mr. Johnson has promised that Britain will leave the European Union by Oct. 31, with or without a deal.
CreditHollie Adams/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Johnson has said he wants to renegotiate a Brexit deal with Brussels, but he has also moved to prepare Britain for a cliff-edge departure at the end of October. His statements in Biarritz left little clarity about the status of his efforts to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

In an interview on Sunday with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Johnson said that the chances of a Brexit deal were “touch and go” and claimed that reaching an agreement “all depends on our E.U. friends and partners.”

That was seen as part of positioning on both sides of the Channel for the blame game should Britain leave the bloc without a deal. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said on Saturday that Mr. Johnson “will not like to go down in history as ‘Mr. No Deal.’ ”

Mr. Johnson told Sky News, another British broadcaster, on Sunday that the chances of a Brexit deal were “improving.” He also said, however, that if an agreement were not struck, Britain would not be obliged to pay all the 39 billion-pound divorce bill it had promised the European Union.

CreditPool photo by Neil Hall

The statements reflect the diplomatic tightrope that Mr. Johnson is walking as he tries to woo Mr. Trump and play hard ball with Brussels — without completely alienating European leaders. And, for Mr. Johnson the summit, is probably less about negotiation and more about managing expectations at home before a possible election campaign.

The prospect of a no-deal Brexit has also raised fears of chaos at jammed ports and shortages of medicines and fuel.

To avert that possibility, Mr. Johnson might be more flexible than he seemed over his demand to scrap the so-called Irish backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which would ensure that goods flowing without checks across the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The London Sunday Times reported that Britain could remove the need for the backstop by taking a “sectorial approach,” aligning the economy closely on European Union rules that most affect Irish border trade, while being free to diverge in other areas.

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

But Mr. Johnson has stepped up preparations for a no-deal Brexit and needs Mr. Trump’s help if he is to strike a trade deal that will lessen the economic blow of a break with the European Union. Yet, the American president is not popular in Britain, and there is suspicion about the concessions he would demand for a trade agreement.

Britain’s opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is already trying to paint Mr. Johnson as the American president’s poodle.

On Sunday, it became clear that there were differences between Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson about the shape of any trade deal between Britain and the United States, including whether it would be a comprehensive pact.

Mr. Johnson pledged a “fantastic deal once we clear up some of the obstacles in our path.” Mr. Trump interrupted, promising “lots of fantastic mini-deals.”

But British critics fear that a trade deal with the United States could harm the National Health Service, by forcing an increase in its pharmaceutical prices, or allow the import of food farmed to lower standards than in Europe.

Mr. Johnson said that he had explained these objections to the president.

“Not only have I made clear of that; the president has made that very, very clear. There is complete unanimity on that point,” he said, while suggesting that there would be “tough talks ahead.”

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