Send for Agent BoJo! Boris Johnson dispatched to Texas to shore up Republican support for Ukraine – POLITICO

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DALLAS — Britain might have fallen out of love with Boris Johnson. But Ukraine’s allies in the U.S. reckon the charismatic ex-prime minister is still the perfect messenger to shore up support for the war in wavering Republican heartlands.

Pro-Ukraine think tankers on Monday brought Johnson to a private lunch in Dallas, Texas, to meet two dozen of the state’s leading conservative figures, including politicians, donors and captains of industry.

The message Johnson was there to deliver was simple: America must stay the course in Ukraine.

“I just urge you all to stick with it,” Johnson told those seated in the grand, wood-panelled dining room in downtown Dallas, where POLITICO was also in attendance. “It will pay off massively in the long run.”

The former U.K. prime minister flew to Texas as a growing number of conservative lawmakers, candidates and activists have started to question the size of the U.S. support package for Ukraine as it attempts to fight back against the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022.

Political tensions over the war are expected to rise further as the 2024 U.S. election draws nearer.

The two most high-profile potential candidates for the Republican nomination — former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — have both voiced skepticism about America’s unwavering support for Ukraine. Trump has pledged to cut a “deal” to “end that war in one day,” while DeSantis dismissed it as a “territorial dispute” which does not involve America’s “vital national interests — though later partially backtracked.

But Johnson told Texan Republicans on Monday: “You are backing the right horse. Ukraine is going to win. They are going to defeat Putin.”

The lunch was not the first time Johnson has lobbied U.S. lawmakers on Ukraine’s behalf. He visited Washington in January, where he publicly urged the U.S. administration to give Ukraine fighter jets, and privately met Republican lawmakers on the same trip.

Following that visit, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) — a bipartisan, Ukraine-supporting think tank based in Washington — decided to enlist Johnson’s support for a broader mission.

The group wanted him to take his energetic, pro-conservative case for the war out of metropolitan D.C. and deep into Republican territory.

“We wanted to make that case outside of Washington — where we all live in a bubble — and to really take it to the heartland, to places like Texas, to get more support for Ukraine, and make the case to people who are skeptical about that support,” said Alina Polyakova, CEPA’s chief executive.

“In many ways Dallas and Texas are the center of the Republican debate,” she added. 

Texas will be a key battleground in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump held his first presidential rally in the Lone Star State in March, while DeSantis and former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley have also been courting votes in Texas. 

Johnson is “very much seen as the architect of the Western policy” on Ukraine, Polyakova said, adding that “because Trump had nice things to say about him when he was the president,” it also gives Johnson “a lot of credibility as well with the base of the Republican Party.” 

As well as the private lunch with Republicans in Dallas on Monday, Johnson also met with former U.S. President George W. Bush, who lives in the city with his wife Laura. Johnson is due to meet Texas Governor Greg Abbott in Austin on Tuesday.

Unusually, the former U.K. prime minister, who raked in almost £5 million from speaking fees in the first six months after leaving office, was not paid for Monday’s lunchtime speaking engagement. However, he did arrange the Dallas trip as a stopover en route to the SCALE Global Summit in Las Vegas, a fintech conference where he will be paid an expected six-figure sum for a scheduled speech. 

Man on a mission

Johnson has kept Ukraine at the top of his public agenda since being forced to resign as PM last July over a string of personal scandals, including his attendance at COVID-19 lockdown-busting parties at his Downing Street home and office.

In power, Johnson had forged a strong personal bond with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and played a leading role in early Western efforts to arm Ukraine. His allies even mooted the idea of him becoming a formal envoy to Ukraine following his abrupt Downing Street exit, though the idea never came to fruition.

That hasn’t stopped Johnson continuing his personal lobbying push, however. He visited the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in January 2023 — despite no longer being a frontline politician — and has continued to speak in support on multiple occasions.

At the Dallas lunch on Monday, Johnson insisted Western backing for Ukraine need not be indefinite, telling those present he had “every hope that the Ukrainians will be able to deliver a very substantial counterpunch this summer,” and that he believed there was “a prospect of a complete Russian military collapse.”

And addressing concerns in Republican quarters that the U.S. should be focusing its attention on China rather than on a land war in Eastern Europe, Johnson said victory for Putin would be “terrible in its ramifications for south-east Asia, for the South China Sea, for all the areas of potential conflict between the great powers in the decades to come.”

By contrast, he added, Western solidarity on Ukraine had already sent a clear message to China.

“From Beijing’s point of view, they’re looking at this and they’re thinking this has massively increased the strategic ambiguity and the risk surrounding a venture against Taiwan,” Johnson said.

One businessman present pressed Johnson on corruption in Ukraine, which he said he had heard was “really bad again.”

But the former prime minister insisted the $50 billion spending package agreed by President Biden would prove “value for money.” The U.S. is getting a “huge, huge boost for global security for a relatively small outlay,” he said.     

And Johnson being Johnson, he couldn’t resist a swipe at his old rival Emmanuel Macron, whom he has reportedly referred to in private as “Putin’s lickspittle.”

“I think it was my French friend and colleague Emmanuel Macron who said ‘Putin must not be humiliated,’” Johnson told the lunch party, adopting a faux French accent to gently mock the president.

“I think it takes an awful lot to humiliate Vladimir Putin, frankly,” Johnson went on. “I don’t think it’s our job to worry about Vladimir Putin’s ego, or his political prospects, or developments in his career.”

Whether Johnson retains the populist credentials to win over the most ardent Trump supporters Stateside remains to be seen, however.

In an interview with Nigel Farage on GB News last month, Trump said that while Johnson was a “wonderful guy” and “a friend of mine,” he had been disappointed by his time in office.

Johnson had gone “a bit on the liberal side,” Trump noted sadly. “Probably in a negative way.”

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Sunak and Macron hail ‘new chapter’ in UK-France ties – POLITICO

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PARIS — Vegetarian sushi and rugby brought the leaders of Britain and France together after years of Brexit rows.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday held the two countries’ first bilateral summit in five years, amid warm words and wishes for closer post-Brexit cooperation.

“This is an exceptional summit, a moment of reunion and reconnection, that illustrates that we want to better speak to each other,” Macron told a joint press conference afterward. “We have the will to work together in a Europe that has new responsibilities.”

Most notably from London’s perspective, the pair agreed a new multi-annual financial framework to jointly tackle the arrival of undocumented migrants on small boats through the English Channel — in part funding a new detention center in France.

“The U.K. and France share a special bond and a special responsibility,” Sunak said. “When the security of our Continent is threatened, we will always be at the forefront of its defense.”

Macron congratulated Sunak for agreeing the Windsor Framework with the European Commission, putting an end to a long U.K.-EU row over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, and stressing it marks a “new beginning of working more closely with the EU.”

“I feel very fortunate to be serving alongside you and incredibly excited about the future we can build together. Merci mon ami,” Sunak said.

It has been many years since the leaders of Britain and France were so publicly at ease with each other.

Sunak and Macron bonded over rugby, ahead of Saturday’s match between England and France, and exchanged T-shirts signed by their respective teams.

Later, they met alone at the Élysée Palace for more than an hour, only being joined by their chiefs of staff at the very end of the meeting, described as “warm and productive” by Sunak’s official spokesman. The pair, who spoke English, had planned to hold a shorter one-to-one session, but they decided to extend it, the spokesman said.

They later met with their respective ministers for a lunch comprising vegetarian sushi, turbot, artichokes and praline tart.

Macron congratulated Sunak for agreeing the Windsor Framework with the European Commission | Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking on the Eurostar en route to Paris, Sunak told reporters this was the beginning of a “new chapter” in the Franco-British relationship.

“It’s been great to get to know Emmanuel over the last two months. There’s a shared desire to strengthen the relationship,” he said. “I really believe that the range of things that we can do together is quite significant.”

In a show of goodwill from the French, who pushed energetically for a hard line during Brexit talks, Macron said he wanted to “fix the consequences of Brexit” and opened the door to closer cooperation with the Brits in the future.

“It’s my wish and it’s in our interests to have closest possible alliance. It will depend on our commitment and willingness but I am sure we will do it,” he said alongside Sunak.             

Tackling small boats

Under the terms of the new migration deal, Britain will pay €141 million to France in 2023-24, €191 million in 2024-25 and €209 million in 2025-26.

This money will come in installments and go toward funding a new detention center in France, a new Franco-British command centre, an extra 500 law enforcement officers on French beaches and better technology to patrol them, including more drones and surveillance aircraft.

The new detention center, located in the Dunkirk area, would be funded by the British and run by the French and help compensate for the lack of space in other detention centers in northern France, according to one of Macron’s aides.

According to U.K. and French officials, France is expected to contribute significantly more funding — up to five times the amount the British are contributing — toward the plan although the Elysée has refused to give exact figures.

A new, permanent French mobile policing unit will join the efforts to tackle small boats. This work will be overseen by a new zonal coordination center, where U.K. liaison officers will be permanently based working with French counterparts.

Sunak stressed U.K.-French cooperation on small boats since November has made a significant difference, and defended the decision to hand more British money to France to help patrol the French northern shores. Irregular migration, he stressed, is a “joint problem.”

Ukraine unity

Sunak and Macron also made a show of unity on the war in Ukraine, agreeing that their priority would be to continue to support the country in its war against Russian aggression.

The French president said the “ambition short-term is to help Ukraine to resist and to build counter-offensives.”

“The priority is military,” he said. “We want a lasting peace, when Ukraine wants it and in the conditions that it wants and our will is to put it in position to do so.”

The West’s top priority should remain helping Ukrainians achieve “a decisive battlefield advantage” that later allows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to sit down at the negotiating table with Russian President Vladimir Putin from a stronger position, Sunak said en route to the summit.

“That should be everyone’s focus,” he added. “Of course, this will end as all conflicts do, at the negotiating table. But that’s a decision for Ukraine to make. And what we need to do is put them in the best possible place to have those talks at an appropriate moment that makes sense for them.”

The two leaders also announced they would start joint training operations of Ukrainian marines.

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Gun attack on policeman deepens political tensions in Northern Ireland – POLITICO

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DUBLIN — As if political tensions in Northern Ireland weren’t bad enough, Irish Republican Army die-hards unwilling to accept their side’s cease-fire appear determined to make matters worse.

An off-duty police officer is in hospital in a critical condition after being shot several times at close range Wednesday night as he coached a youth football practice on the outskirts of the Northern Irish town of Omagh. No group claimed responsibility, but politicians from all sides agreed that one of the small IRA splinter groups still active in the U.K. region must be to blame.

“The people behind this attack think they’re at war. Well they’re not,” said Colum Eastwood, the moderate Irish nationalist leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. “Their fight isn’t with any government, any police service or anyone else. It’s with the people of Ireland who have chosen peace. And it’s a fight they will never, never win.”

The last time any of the IRA factions killed a Northern Ireland police officer was in 2011, again in Omagh — also the scene of the deadliest attack of them all, when a Real IRA car bomb killed 29 people in 1998 in hopes of wrecking that year’s Good Friday peace accord.

The largest Irish republican paramilitary group, the Provisional IRA, killed nearly 300 officers as part of its own 27-year campaign of shootings and bombings, but laid down its arms in 1997 and surrendered them to foreign disarmament officials in 2005.

That key peacemaking step, required as part of the Good Friday deal, ultimately helped persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to end its opposition to power-sharing and finally form a unity government in 2007 with their Irish republican enemies in Sinn Féin, longtime partners of the Provisional IRA. However, last year the DUP collapsed their coalition as part of its campaign against post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, a dispute that U.K. and EU negotiators have spent months trying to resolve.

Wednesday night’s shooting brought back grim memories from a generation ago when such violence was a nightly occurrence, an era when militants effectively filled Northern Ireland’s prevailing political vacuum with bloodshed. The Good Friday pact and the cross-community government it spawned were supposed to keep such violence at bay.

With the Stormont parliamentary building shuttered amid Brexit fallout, politicians from all sides briefly spoke with one voice on social media to condemn the officer’s attackers.

“Those responsible for such horror must be brought to justice,” said Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, who has been in the post only since September.

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‘We’re giving it everything we’ve got’ on Brexit deal – POLITICO

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LONDON — Rishi Sunak insisted Saturday he wants to “get the job done” on Brexit, promising he was “giving it everything we’ve got” to secure a deal with Brussels.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, the British prime minister said he was hopeful of a “positive outcome,” as he launched a weekend media blitz, burnishing his Brexiteer credentials, and reassuring potential critics his deal “should command very broad support, because it ensures the free flow of trade within the United Kingdom’s internal market, it secures Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and it ensures sovereignty.”

Both sides continue to insist a deal to resolve the ongoing tension over Britain’s post-Brexit trading arrangements, which see Northern Ireland continue to follow some EU laws to get round the need for checks at the U.K.’s border with the Republic of Ireland, is not yet done, but could come within days if negotiators are able to close the remaining gaps.

Sunak, who himself backed Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2016, has been trying to win support from the Democratic Unionist Party and the hardline Brexit-supporting European Research Group in Westminster.

“I’m a Conservative, I’m a Brexiteer. And I’m a Unionist,” Sunak told the Sunday Times. “There’s unfinished business on Brexit and I want to get the job done,” he added.

Separately, in a piece for the Sun on Sunday, Sunak wrote: “There’s still more work to do but we have made promising progress recently and I’m determined to do right by the people of Northern Ireland and deliver for them.”

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How Boris Johnson’s departure paved the way for a grand Brexit bargain – POLITICO

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LONDON — It was clear when Boris Johnson was forced from Downing Street that British politics had changed forever.

But few could have predicted that less than six months later, all angry talk of a cross-Channel trade war would be a distant memory, with Britain and the EU striking a remarkable compromise deal over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.

Private conversations with more than a dozen U.K. and EU officials, politicians and diplomats reveal how the Brexit world changed completely after Johnson’s departure — and how an “unholy trinity” of little-known civil servants, ensconced in a gloomy basement in Brussels, would mastermind a seismic shift in Britain’s relationship with the Continent.

They were aided by an unlikely sequence of political events in Westminster — not least an improbable change of mood under the combative Liz Truss; and then the jaw-dropping rise to power of the ultra-pragmatic Rishi Sunak. Even the amiable figure of U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly would play his part, glad-handing his way around Europe and smoothing over cracks that had grown ever-wider since 2016.

As Sunak’s Conservative MPs pore over the detail of his historic agreement with Brussels — and await the all-important verdict of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland — POLITICO has reconstructed the dramatic six-month shift in Britain’s approach that brought us to the brink of the Brexit deal we see today.

Bye-bye Boris

Johnson’s departure from Downing Street, on September 6, triggered an immediate mood shift in London toward the EU — and some much-needed optimism within the bloc about future cross-Channel relations.

For key figures in EU capitals, Johnson would always be the untrustworthy figure who signed the protocol agreement only to disown it months afterward.

In Paris, relations were especially poisonous, amid reports of Johnson calling the French “turds”; endless spats with the Elysée over post-Brexit fishing rights, sausages and cross-Channel migrants; and Britain’s role in the AUKUS security partnership, which meant the loss of a multi-billion submarine contract for France. Paris’ willingness to engage with Johnson was limited in the extreme.

Truss, despite her own verbal spats with French President Emmanuel Macron — and her famously direct approach to diplomacy — was viewed in a different light. Her success at building close rapport with negotiating partners had worked for her as trade secretary, and once she became prime minister, she wanted to move beyond bilateral squabbles and focus on global challenges, including migration, energy and the war in Ukraine.

“Boris had become ‘Mr. Brexit,’” one former U.K. government adviser said. “He was the one the EU associated with the protocol, and obviously [Truss] didn’t come with the same baggage. She had covered the brief, but she didn’t have the same history. As prime minister, Liz wanted to use her personal relationships to move things on — but that wasn’t the same as a shift in the underlying substance.”

Indeed, Truss was still clear on the need to pass the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would have given U.K. ministers powers to overrule part of the protocol unilaterally, in order to ensure leverage in the talks with the European Commission.

Truss also triggered formal dispute proceedings against Brussels for blocking Britain’s access to the EU’s Horizon Europe research program. And her government maintained Johnson’s refusal to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, causing deep irritation in Brussels.

But despite the noisy backdrop, tentative contact with Brussels quietly resumed in September, with officials on both sides trying to rebuild trust. Truss, however, soon became “very disillusioned by the lack of pragmatism from the EU,” one of her former aides said.

“The negotiations were always about political will, not technical substance — and for whatever reason, the political will to compromise from the Commission was never there when Liz, [ex-negotiator David] Frost, Boris were leading things,” they said.

Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street in central London on October 20, 2022 | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Truss, of course, would not be leading things for long. An extraordinary meltdown of the financial markets precipitated her own resignation in late October, after just six weeks in office. Political instability in Westminster once again threatened to derail progress.

But Sunak’s arrival in No. 10 Downing Street — amid warnings of a looming U.K. recession — gave new impetus to the talks. An EU official said the mood music improved further, and that discussions with London became “much more constructive” as a result.

David Lidington, a former deputy to ex-PM Theresa May who played a key role in previous Brexit negotiations, describes Sunak as a “globalist” rather than an “ultra-nationalist,” who believes Britain ought to have “a sensible, friendly and grown-up relationship” with Brussels outside the EU.

During his time as chancellor, Sunak was seen as a moderating influence on his fellow Brexiteer Cabinet colleagues, several of whom seemed happy to rush gung-ho toward a trade war with the EU.

“Rishi has always thought of the protocol row as a nuisance, an issue he wanted to get dealt with,” the former government adviser first quoted said.

One British official suggested the new prime minister’s reputation for pragmatism gave the U.K. negotiating team “an opportunity to start again.”

Sunak’s slow decision-making and painstaking attention to detail — the subject of much criticism in Whitehall — proved useful in calming EU jitters about the new regime, they added.

“When he came in, it wasn’t just the calming down of the markets. It was everyone across Europe and in the U.S. thinking ‘OK, they’re done going through their crazy stage,’” the same official said. “It’s the time he takes with everything, the general steadiness.”

EU leaders “have watched him closely, they listened to what he said, and they have been prepared to trust him and see how things go,” Lidington noted.

Global backdrop

As months of chaos gave way to calm in London, the West was undergoing a seismic reorganization.

Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine triggered a flurry of coordinated work for EU and U.K. diplomats — including sanctions, military aid, reconstruction talks and anti-inflation packages. A sense began to emerge that it was in both sides’ common interest to get the Northern Ireland protocol row out of the way.

“The war in Ukraine has completely changed the context over the last year,” an EU diplomat said.

A second U.K. official agreed. “Suddenly we realized that the 2 percent of the EU border we’d been arguing about was nothing compared to the massive border on the other side of the EU, which Putin was threatening,” they said. “And suddenly there wasn’t any electoral benefit to keeping this row over Brexit going — either for us or for governments across the EU.”

A quick glance at the electoral calendar made it clear 2023 offered the last opportunity to reach a deal in the near future, with elections looming for both the U.K. and EU parliaments the following year — effectively putting any talks on ice.

“Rishi Sunak would have certainly been advised by his officials that come 2024, the EU is not going to be wanting to take any new significant initiatives,” Lidington said. “And we will be in election mode.”

The upcoming 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday peace agreement on April 10 heaped further pressure on the U.K. negotiators, amid interest from U.S. President Joe Biden in visiting Europe to mark the occasion.

“The anniversary was definitely playing on people’s minds,” the first U.K. official said. “Does [Sunak] really want to be the prime minister when there’s no government in Northern Ireland on the anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement?”

The pressure was ramped up further when Biden specifically raised the protocol in a meeting with Truss at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in late September, after which British officials said they expected the 25th anniversary to act as a “key decision point” on the dispute.

The King and I

Whitehall faced further pressure from another unlikely source — King Charles III, who was immediately planning a state visit to Paris within weeks of ascending the throne in September 2022. Truss had suggested delaying the visit until the protocol row was resolved, according to two European diplomats.

The monarch is now expected to visit Paris and Berlin at the end of March — and although his role is strictly apolitical, few doubt he is taking a keen interest in proceedings. He has raised the protocol in recent conversations with European diplomats, showing a close engagement with the detail. 

One former senior diplomat involved in several of the king’s visits said that Charles has long held “a private interest in Ireland, and has wanted to see if there was an appropriately helpful role he could play in improving relations [with the U.K].”

By calling the deal the Windsor framework and presenting it at a press conference in front of Windsor Castle, one of the king’s residences, No. 10 lent Monday’s proceedings an unmistakable royal flavor.

The king also welcomed von der Leyen for tea at the castle following the signing of the deal. A Commission spokesperson insisted their meeting was “separate” from the protocol discussion talks. Tory MPs were skeptical.

Cleverly does it

The British politician tasked with improving relations with Brussels was Foreign Secretary Cleverly, appointed by Truss last September. He immediately began exploring ways to rebuild trust with Commission Vice-President and Brexit point-man Maroš Šefčovič, the second U.K. official cited said.

His first hurdle was a perception in Brussels that the British team had sabotaged previous talks by leaking key details to U.K. newspapers and hardline Tory Brexiteers for domestic political gain. As a result, U.K. officials made a conscious effort to keep negotiations tightly sealed, a No. 10 official said.

“The relationship with Maroš improved massively when we agreed not to carry out a running commentary” on the content of the discussions, the second U.K. official added.

This meant keeping key government ministers out of the loop, including Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, an arch-Brexiteer who had been brought back onto the frontbench by Truss.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is welcomed by European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič ahead of a meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on February 17, 2023 | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

The first U.K. official said Baker would have “felt the pain,” as he had little to offer his erstwhile backbench colleagues looking for guidance while negotiations progressed, “and that was a choice by No. 10.”

Cleverly and Šefčovič “spent longer than people think just trying to build rapport,” the second U.K. official said, with Cleverly explaining the difficulties the protocol was raising in Northern Ireland and Šefčovič insistent that key economic sectors were in fact benefiting from the arrangement.

Cleverly also worked at the bilateral relationship with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, while Sunak made efforts to improve ties with French President Emmanuel Macron, Lidington noted.

A British diplomat based in Washington said Cleverly had provided “a breath of fresh air” after the “somewhat stiff” manner of his predecessors, Truss and the abrasive Dominic Raab.

By the Conservative party conference in early October, the general mood among EU diplomats in attendance was one of expectation. And the Birmingham jamboree did not disappoint.

Sorry is the hardest word

Baker, who had once described himself as a “Brexit hard man,” stunned Dublin by formally apologizing to the people of Ireland for his past comments, just days before technical talks between the Commission and the U.K. government were due to resume.

“I caused a great deal of inconvenience and pain and difficulty,” he said. “Some of our actions were not very respectful of Ireland’s legitimate interests. I want to put that right.”

The apology was keenly welcomed in Dublin, where Micheál Martin, the Irish prime minister at the time, called it “honest and very, very helpful.”

Irish diplomats based in the U.K. met Baker and other prominent figures from the European Research Group of Tory Euroskeptics at the party conference, where Baker spoke privately of his “humility” and his “resolve” to address the issues, a senior Irish diplomat said.

“Resolve was the keyword,” the envoy said. “If Steve Baker had the resolve to work for a transformation of relationships between Ireland and the U.K., then we thought — there were tough talks to be had — but a sustainable deal was now a possibility.”

There were other signs of rapprochement. Just a few hours after Baker’s earth-shattering apology, Truss confirmed her attendance at the inaugural meeting in Prague of the European Political Community, a new forum proposed by Macron open to both EU and non-EU countries.

Sunak at the wheel

The momentum snowballed under Sunak, who decided within weeks of becoming PM to halt the passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in the House of Lords, reiterating Britain’s preference for a negotiated settlement. In exchange, the Commission froze a host of infringement proceedings taking aim at the way the U.K. was handling the protocol. This created space for talks to proceed in a more cordial environment.

An EU-U.K. agreement in early January allowed Brussels to start using a live information system detailing goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, seen as key to unlocking a wider agreement on physical checks under the protocol.

The U.K. also agreed to conduct winter technical negotiations in Brussels, rather than alternating rounds between the EU capital and London, as was the case when Frost served as Britain’s chief negotiator.

Trust continued to build. Suddenly the Commission was open to U.K. solutions such as the “Stormont brake,” a clause giving the Northern Ireland Assembly power of veto over key protocol machinations, which British officials did not believe Brussels would accept when they first pitched them.

The Stormont brake was discussed “relatively early on,” a third U.K. official said. “Then we spent a huge amount of effort making sure nobody knew about it. It was kept the most secret of secret things.”

Yet a second EU diplomat claimed the ideas in the deal were not groundbreaking and could have been struck “years ago” if Britain had a prime minister with enough political will to solve the dispute. “None of the solutions that have been found now is revolutionary,” they said.

An ally of Johnson described the claim he was a block on progress as “total nonsense.”

The ‘unholy trinity’

Away from the media focus, a group of seasoned U.K. officials began to engage with their EU counterparts in earnest. But there was one (not so) new player in town.

Tim Barrow, a former U.K. permanent representative to the EU armed with a peerless contact book, had been an active figure in rebuilding relations with the bloc since Truss appointed him national security adviser. He acquired a more prominent role in the protocol talks after Sunak dispatched him to Brussels in January 2023, hoping EU figures would see him as “almost one of them,” another adviser to Sunak said.  

Ensconced in the EU capital, Barrow and his U.K. team of negotiators took over several meeting rooms in the basement of the U.K. embassy, while staffers were ordered to keep quiet about their presence.

Besides his work on Northern Ireland trade, Barrow began to appear in meetings with EU representatives about other key issues creating friction in the EU-U.K. relationship, including discussions on migration alongside U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Barrow “positioned himself very well,” the first EU diplomat quoted above said. “He’s very close to the prime minister — everybody in Brussels and London knows he’s got his ear. He’s very knowledgeable while very political.”

But other British officials insist Barrow’s presence was not central to driving through the deal. “He has been a figure, but not the only figure,” the U.K. adviser quoted above said. “It’s been a lot of people, actually, over quite a period of time.”

When it came to the tough, detailed technical negotiations, the burden fell on the shoulders of Mark Davies — the head of the U.K. taskforce praised for his mastery of the protocol detail — and senior civil servant and former director of the Northern Ireland Office, Brendan Threlfall.

The three formed an “unholy trinity,” as described by the first U.K. official, with each one bringing something to the table.

Davies was “a classic civil servant, an unsung hero,” the official said, while Threlfall “has good connections, good understanding” and “Tim has met all the EU interlocutors over the years.”

Sitting across the table, the EU team was led by Richard Szostak, a Londoner born to Polish parents and a determined Commission official with a great CV and an affinity for martial arts. His connection to von der Leyen was her deputy head of cabinet until recently, Stéphanie Riso, a former member of Brussels’ Brexit negotiating team who developed a reputation for competence on both sides of the debate. 

Other senior figures at the U.K. Cabinet Office played key roles, including Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and senior official Sue Gray.

The latter — a legendary Whitehall enforcer who adjudicated over Johnson’s “Partygate” scandal — has a longstanding connection to Northern Ireland, famously taking a career break in the late 1980s to run a pub in Newry, where she has family links. More recently, she spent two years overseeing the finance ministry.

Gray has been spotted in Stormont at crunch points over the past six months as Northern Ireland grapples with the pain of the continued absence of an executive.

Some predict Gray could yet play a further role, in courting the Democratic Unionist Party as the agreement moves forward in the weeks ahead.

For U.K. and EU officials, the agreement struck with Brussels represented months of hard work — but for Sunak and his Cabinet colleagues, the hardest yards may yet lie ahead.

This story was updated to clarify two parts of the sourcing.

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Rishi Sunak is haunted by ghosts of prime ministers past – POLITICO

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LONDON — “Back to her old self again” was how one erstwhile colleague described Liz Truss, who made her return to the U.K.’s front pages at the weekend. 

That’s exactly what Rishi Sunak and his allies were afraid of. 

Truss, who spent 49 turbulent days in No. 10 Downing Street last year, is back. After a respectful period of 13 weeks’ silence, the U.K.’s shortest-serving prime minister exploded back onto the scene with a 4,000-word essay in the Sunday Telegraph complaining that her radical economic agenda was never given a “realistic chance.”

In her first interview since stepping down, broadcast Monday evening, she expanded on this, saying she encountered “system resistance” to her plans as PM and did not get “the level of political support required” to change prevailing attitudes.

While the reception for Truss’s relaunch has not been exactly rapturous — with much of the grumbling coming from within her own party — it still presents a genuine headache for her successor, Sunak, who must now deal with not one but two unruly former prime ministers jostling from the sidelines. 

Boris Johnson is also out of a job, but is never far from the headlines. Recent engagements with the U.S. media and high-profile excursions to Kyiv have ensured his strident views on the situation in Ukraine remain well-aired, even as he racks up hundreds of thousands in fees from private speaking engagements around the world.

Wasting no time

Truss and Johnson have, typically, both opted for swifter and more vocal returns to frontline politics than many of their forerunners in the role. 

“Most post-war prime ministers have been relatively lucky with their predecessors,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “They have tended to follow the lead of [interwar Conservative PM] Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 promised: ‘Once I leave, I leave. I am not going to speak to the man on the bridge, and I am not going to spit on the deck.’”

Such an approach has never been universal. Ted Heath, PM from 1970-74, made no secret of his disdain for his successor as Tory leader Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher in turn “behaved appallingly” — in Bale’s words — to John Major, who replaced her in Downing Street in 1990 after she was forced from office.

But more recent Tory PMs have kept a respectful distance.

David Cameron quit parliament entirely after losing the EU referendum in 2016, and waited three years before publishing a memoir — reportedly in order to avoid “rocking the boat” during the ongoing Brexit negotiations. 

And while Theresa May became an occasional liberal-centrist thorn in Boris Johnson’s side, she did so only after a series of careful, low-profile contributions in the House of Commons on subjects close to her heart, such as domestic abuse and rail services in her hometown of Maidenhead.

“You might expect to see former prime ministers be a tad more circumspect in the way they re-enter the political debate,” says Paul Harrison, former press secretary to May. “But then she [Truss] wasn’t a conventional prime minister in any sense of the word, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that she’s done something very unconventional.”

Truss’s rapid refresh has not met with rave reviews.

Paul Goodman, editor of influential grassroots website ConservativeHome, writes that “rather than concede, move on, and focus on the future, she denies, digs in and reimagines the past,” while Tory MP Richard Graham told Times Radio that Truss’ time in office “was a period that [people] would rather not really remember too clearly.”

One long-serving Conservative MP said “she only had herself to blame for her demise, and we are still clearing up some of the mess.” Another appraised her latest intervention simply with an exploding-head emoji.

Trussites forever

But despite Tory appeals for calm, the refusal of Truss and Johnson to lie low remains a serious worry for the man eventually chosen to lead the party after Truss crashed and burned and Johnson thought better of trying to stage a comeback.

Between them, the two ex-PMs have the ability to highlight two of Sunak’s big weaknesses. 

While Truss may never live down the disastrous “mini-budget” of last September which sent the U.K. economy off the rails, her wider policy agenda still has a hold over a number of Conservative MPs who believe they have no hope of winning the election without it. 

This was the rationale behind the formation last month of the Conservative Growth Group, a caucus of MPs who will carry the torch for the low-tax, deregulatory approach to government favored by Truss and who continue to complain Sunak has little imagination when it comes to supply-side reforms. 

Simon Clarke, who was a Cabinet minister under Truss, insisted “she has thought long and hard” about why her approach failed and “posed important questions” about how the U.K. models economic growth in her Telegraph piece.

Other Conservatives have been advocating a reappraisal of the actions of the Bank of England in the period surrounding the mini-budget, arguing that Truss was unfairly blamed for a collapse in the bond market.

But Harrison doubts whether she may be the best advocate for the causes she represents. “There’s a question about whether it actually best serves her interests in pushing back against a strong prevailing understanding of what happened so soon after leaving office.”

Johnson, meanwhile — to his fans, at least — continues to symbolize the star quality and ballot box appeal which they fear Sunak lacks. 

One government aide who has worked with both men said Johnson’s strength lay in his “undeniable charisma” and persuasive power, while Sunak, more prosaically, “was all about hard work.”

These apparent deficiencies feed into a fear among Sunak’s MPs that he is governing too tentatively and, as one ally put it recently, needs to rip off the “cashmere jumper.”

It’s been posited that British prime ministers swing back and forth between “jocks” and “nerds” — and nothing is more likely to underline Sunak’s nerdiness than a pair of recently-deposed jocks refusing to shut up. 

Trouble ahead 

Unluckily for Sunak, there are at least three big-ticket items coming up which will provide ample ground on which his nemeses can cause trouble. 

One is the forthcoming budget — the government’s annual public spending plan, due March 15. Truss and Johnson are unlikely to get personally involved, but Truss loyalists will make a nuisance of themselves if Sunak’s approach is judged to offer the paucity of answers on growth they already fear.

Before that, Truss is expected to make her first public appearance outside the U.K. with a speech on Taiwan which could turn up the heat on Sunak over his approach to relations with China. 

One person close to her confirmed China would be “a big thing” for her, and is expected to be a theme of her future parliamentary interventions.

Then there is the small matter of the Northern Ireland protocol, the thorniest unresolved aspect of the Brexit deal with Brussels where tortured negotiations appear to be reaching an endgame.

Sunak has been sitting with a draft version of a technical deal since last week, according to several people with knowledge of the matter, and is now girding his loins for the unenviable task of trying to get a compromise agreement past both his own party and hardline Northern Irish unionists.

A Whitehall official working on the protocol said Johnson “absolutely” had the power to detonate that process, and that “he should never be underestimated as an agent of chaos.”

One option touted by onlookers is for Sunak to attempt to assemble the former prime ministers and ask them to stand behind him on a matter of such huge national and international significance. But as things stand such a get-together is difficult to picture.

At the heart of Johnson and Truss’ actions seems to be an essential disquiet over the explosive manner of their departures.

They appear fated to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps, as Bale puts it — “not caring how much trouble they cause Sunak, because in their view, he should never have taken over from them in the first place.”

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Briefing wars escalate as nervous EU and Britain enter Brexit endgame – POLITICO

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Voiced by artificial intelligence.

LONDON — Whisper it softly, but the Brexit endgame has arrived.

Eighteen months after Brussels and London reopened talks on the contentious Northern Ireland protocol — and more than three years after Britain actually left the EU — panicked officials on both sides of the English Channel are frantically trying to manage expectations as reports of a technical-level deal between the two sides emerge.

“They’re still in calls with the EU, but it’s literally just lawyers tidying up bits of text,” one senior British government official said Wednesday, in reference to the U.K. negotiating team. “We’re done.”

Multiple reports suggest U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak now has a draft technical deal on his desk to consider, despite a wave of both official and unofficial denials from politicians and diplomats on all sides.

“I suspect it is more the technical shape of a deal than a deal per se,” said a second person close to the talks on the U.K. side, “which might be giving them wriggle room to deny it.”

Denials of an outright agreement were still coming thick and fast Wednesday night after the Times reported that London and Brussels had indeed reached a deal on the key customs and governance disputes that have dogged talks over the protocol. Crucially — and most contentiously — its front page story suggested the EU has given ground on the role its top court will play in resolving future disputes. 

That followed earlier reporting late last week by Bloomberg News that technical-level solutions on customs, state aid and checks were indeed within touching distance.

Talks on smoothing the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol have been ongoing since the summer of 2021, with negotiators long targeting a deal this month, ahead of an expected visit to Ireland by U.S. President Joe Biden in April.

The protocol arrangement, agreed as part of the Brexit divorce deal, sees Northern Ireland continue to follow the EU’s customs union and single market rules, in an effort to avoid a politically-sensitive hard border with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member state. 

Yet Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians have long objected to the protocol, with the Democratic Unionist Party boycotting power-sharing and arguing that checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland effectively separate the region from the rest of the U.K. They’re backed by critics in Sunak’s governing Conservative Party who resent the Court of Justice of the European Union’s place in protocol governance.

Selling a deal to those domestic audiences represents an almighty political challenge for a prime minister already battling to keep his fractured party together.

The official line

Officially, both sides are sticking to the script and insisting that talks continue.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters Wednesday: “I’m very sorry, but I cannot give partial elements — because you never know in the very end how the package looks like.”

In Downing Street, Sunak’s official spokesperson tried to steer journalists away from what he called “speculative” reporting.

“No deal has been agreed, there is still lots of work to do on all areas, with significant gaps remaining between the U.K. and EU positions,” the spokesperson said. “Talks are ongoing on potential solutions including on goods.”

But the senior U.K. official quoted before said the message from No. 10 that negotiations are ongoing only applied at a political level.

They added: “It’s now up to politicians to decide ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ Rishi could have further technical talks with Ursula von der Leyen and [EU Brexit point-man] Maroš Šefčovič and stuff like that, but officials are done. It’s plain as day.”

According to the second person close to the talks, Sunak has been receiving regular updates on the evolving technical shape of the deal. 

“As far as I know, he hasn’t given it the green light yet,” they said. “But it is all being quite ‘secret squirrel’ in the [U.K.] Cabinet Office. So I don’t think many people will be fully in the loop.”

In Brussels and in London, EU diplomats were busy rubbishing reports of an imminent resolution, while acknowledging that information on the state of play is being kept tight. European ambassadors were briefed on Wednesday morning that a breakthrough is yet to be reached, and that the CJEU issue remains particularly tricky.

Even inside the U.K., claim and counter-claim were flying. Another British official close to the talks said it was “just wrong [that a deal] is close,” with “fundamental” issues outstanding “including making sure there isn’t a border.” They would not, the person added, “expect anything in the short term.”

One EU diplomat summed up the mood: “If somebody tells you they know what’s happening, they’re lying.”

In truth, a final agreement on Brexit has never looked so close.

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Everyone saw Brazil violence coming. Except social media giants – POLITICO

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For months, there were warning signs online that supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian president, would take to the streets to protest against his left-leaning successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

But when far-right rioters stormed Brazil’s key government buildings on January 8, social media companies were again caught flat-footed.

In WhatsApp groups — many with thousands of subscribers — viral videos of the attacks quickly spread like wildfire. Many of the Bolsonaro faithful urged rioters on, calling for a return to military dictatorship, according to encrypted messages reviewed by POLITICO.

On Twitter, social media users posted thousands of images and videos in support of the attacks under the hashtag #manifestacao, or protest. On Facebook, the same hashtag garnered tens of thousands of engagements via likes, shares and comments, mostly in favor of the riots, according to CrowdTangle, the social media analytics tool owned by Meta. This all happened despite Meta pledging to remove any post in praise of the violence.

“They’re not doing enough,” said João Brant, a Brazilian disinformation researcher when asked in October how the social media giants were combating waves of falsehoods. The misinformation was promoted by high-profile politicians and influencers targeting the country’s presidential election battle between Bolsonaro and Lula. Brant is now secretary for digital policies in Brazil’s Social Communication Secretariat, a government agency.

“The very idea of accountability or a commitment — a real commitment — to defend democracy should be part of their responsibilities,” he added. “The idea of no liability at all for the platforms gives them a safe harbor to push the burden to whoever will take the lead in trying to tackle fake news.”

In response, the platforms highlighted efforts taken to quell online misinformation, including: work with outside fact-checkers to debunk falsehoods; disclaimers placed on popular hashtags linked to the Brazilian violence; and commitments to remove content and accounts that glorified the nationwide riots.

Yet in failing to clamp down on such content, the violence in Brazil again highlights the central role social media companies play in the fundamental machinery of 21st century democracy. These firms now provide digital tools like encrypted messaging services used by activists to coordinate offline violence and rely on automated algorithms designed to promote partisan content that can undermine people’s trust in elections.

It also highlights the difficulties in combating long-standing partisan divisions that started well before social media, but have become weaponized by an increasingly sophisticated network of primarily far-right online users — from Brasilia to Berlin to Boston.

In the hours after the riots began across Brazil, for instance, like-minded groups across North America and Europe quickly jumped into action to promote their solidarity with the Bolsonaro supporters and spread those messages worldwide, primarily through Telegram, the encrypted messaging app favored by extremists. That included claiming the Latin American country’s election was “rigged,” akin to allegations promoted by former U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as conspiracy claims that the so-called global deep state was behind Lula’s victory in October, according to scores of social media messages reviewed by POLITICO.

Global far right

“There should be no confusion about the global far-right’s willingness to learn from each other, share tactics, and exploit social media to achieve their ends,” said Wendy Via, president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, a non-profit that tracked Bolsonaro’s use of partisan online tactics during his presidency.

Social media giants did not create the political divisions now engulfing Brazil. But, despite years of promises to slow how such partisanship can spread online, the companies are yet to come to terms with their over-sized role in how democracies function.

Members of the Federal Legislative Police next to a vehicle that crashed into a fountain | Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

In part, it comes down to resources.

Since Elon Musk took over Twitter in late October, the world’s richest man has slashed the internal teams in charge of combating misinformation, including individuals in charge of the company’s oversight in Brazil, according to two people with knowledge of those layoffs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

At Meta, the company banned misleading political ads within Brazil, including those questioning the legitimacy of last year’s election. But high-profile politicians like Bolsonaro with large online followings repeated those unsubstantiated claims with little or no censure, while the lion’s share of Meta’s election-protecting resources was earmarked for the U.S. midterm elections in November.

For Damon McCoy, a professor at New York University who has monitored Meta’s response to similar “emergency events,” companies have failed to act quickly enough to delete viral videos, images and partisans news about offline attacks, allowing these falsehoods to circulate widely online.

Instead of focusing on removing posts inciting violence, social media giants should impose a so-called circuit breaker on how their algorithms promote such material, he said. That would limit how posts can go viral until companies’ content moderation teams can respond to real-world threats.

Companies should “push this circuit breaker” to stop offline violence from spreading online within seconds, he said. “You need to have a circuit breaker in the system to realistically handle this kind of crisis event.”

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Unloved at home, Emmanuel Macron wants to get ‘intimate’ with the world – POLITICO

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PARIS — When French President Emmanuel Macron’s party lost its absolute majority in parliament six months ago, many wondered what the setback would mean for an ambitious, here-to-disrupt-the-status-quo leader whose first term was defined by a top-down style of management.

It turns out Macron 2.0 is a man about globe, pitching “strategic intimacy” to world leaders, as he leaves domestic politics to his chief lieutenant and concentrates on his preferred sphere: international diplomacy.

The Frenchman’s past “intimate” moves have been well-documented: affectionate hugging with Angela Merkel, knuckle-crunching handshakes with Donald Trump, and serial bromancing with the likes of Justin Trudeau and Rishi Sunak. Now in his second term, the French president appears to be making a move on — quite literally — the world.

Since his reelection, Macron has been hopping from one official visit to another: in Algeria one day to restore relations with a former colony, in Bangkok another to woo Asian nations, and in Washington most recently to shore up the relationship with Washington. The globetrotting head of state has drawn criticism in the French press that he is deserting the home front.

“He is everywhere, follows everything, but he’s mostly elsewhere,” quipped a French minister speaking anonymously.

“[But] he’s been on the job for five years now, does he really need to follow the minutiae of every project? And the international pressure is very strong. Nothing is going well in the world,” the minister added.

Before COVID-19 struck, Macron’s first term was marked by a brisk schedule of reforms, including a liberalization of the job market aimed at making France more competitive. The French president was hoping to continue in the same pragmatic vein during his second term, focusing on industrial policy and reforming France’s pensions system. While he hasn’t abandoned these goals, the failure to win a parliamentary majority in June has forced him to slow down on the domestic agenda.

Foreign policy in France has always been the guarded remit of the president, but Macron is trying to flip political necessity into opportunity, delegating the tedium and messiness of French parliamentary politics to his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

There are few areas of global diplomacy where the president hasn’t pitched a French initiative in recent months — whether it’s food security in Africa, multilateralism in Asia or boosting civilian resilience in Ukraine. Despite some foreign policy missteps in his first term including the backing of strongman Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan civil war, Macron is now a veteran statesman, eagerly taking advantage of Europe’s leaderless landscape to hog the international stage.

The French president’s full pivot to global diplomacy in his weakened second term at home is reminiscent of past leaders confronting turmoil on the domestic front.

“The Jupiterian period is over. He’s got no majority,” said Cyrille Bret, researcher for the Jacques Delors Institute. “So now he is suffering from the Clinton-second-mandate-syndrome, who after the impeachment attempts over the Lewinsky [inquiry], turned to the international scene, trying to resolve issues in the Balkans, the Middle East and in China.”

But even as Macron embraces the wide world, the pitfalls ahead are numerous. Photo ops with world leaders haven’t done much to slow the erosion of his approval ratings at home. With a recession looming in Europe and discontent over inflation and energy woes, Macron’s margins of maneuver are limited, and trouble at home might ultimately need his attention.

Man about globe

The French president first used the words “strategic intimacy” in October, when he told European leaders gathered in Prague they needed to work on “a strategic conversation” to overcome divisions and start new projects.

If the thought of 44 European leaders cozying up wasn’t bewildering enough, Macron double-downed this month and called for “more strategic intimacy” with the U.S.

It’s not entirely clear what kind of transatlantic liaison he was gunning for, but it certainly included a good dose of tough love. Arriving in Washington, Macron called an American multi-billion package of green subsidies “super aggressive.” (He nonetheless received red carpet treatment at the White House, with Joe Biden calling him “his friend” and even “his closer” — the man who helps him bring deals over the finish line — even if he didn’t actually obtain any concessions from the U.S. president.) 

Some of Macron’s success in taking center stage is, of course, due to France’s historical assets: a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, a nuclear capacity, a history of military interventions and global diplomacy.

But for the Americans, Macron is also the last dancing partner left in a fast-emptying ballroom across the pond. The U.K. is still embroiled in its own internal affairs and has lost some influence after Brexit, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hasn’t filled the space left by Merkel’s departure.

While Macron’s abstract and at times convoluted speeches may not be to everyone’s liking, at least he has got something to say.

“[The Americans] are looking for someone to engage with and there’s a lack of alternatives,” said Sophia Besch, European affairs expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Macron is the last one standing. There’s his enthusiasm, and at the same time he is disruptive for a leader and not always an easy partner.”

“He can count on some reluctant admirers in Washington for his energy,” she said.

The French touch

In his diplomatic endeavors, Macron likes a good surprise.

“Emmanuel Macron doesn’t like working bottom-up, where the political link is lost,” said one French diplomat. “He enjoys surprising people and marking political coups.”

“The [French bureaucracy] doesn’t really like that,” the diplomat added. “We prefer things that are all neat and tidy.”

Conjuring up new ideas — such as the European Political Community — that haven’t quite filtered through the layers of bureaucracy is one of Macron’s ways of pushing the envelope. The newly christened group’s first summit was ultimately hailed as a success, having marked the return of the U.K. to a European forum and displaying the Continent’s unity in the face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

It’s a technique that forces the hand of other participants but sometimes undermines the credibility of his initiatives, and raises questions about what has really been confirmed. Launching the European Political Community may have been a success; announcing a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. president a couple of days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine less so. (The summit, obviously, never took place.)

Macron’s diplomatic frenzy has also raised speculation that he is already gunning for a top international job for when he leaves the Elysée palace. Macron cannot run for a third term, and speculation is already running high in France on what the hyperactive president will do next.

The question at the heart of Macron’s second term is whether his attempts to be everything and everywhere — combined with his stubborn dedication to controversial ideas — is what will ultimately trip him up.

Even as Macron’s U.S. visit was hailed a success, with him saying France and the US were “fully aligned” on Russia, he sparked controversy on his return when he told a French TV channel that Russia should be offered “security guarantees” in the event of negotiations on ending the war in Ukraine.

“That comment fell out of the line in relation to the coordinated message from Macron and Biden, which was that nothing should be done about Ukraine without Ukraine’s [approval],” said Besch.

Macron says he wants France to be an “exemplary” NATO member, but he still wants France to act as a “balancing power” that does not completely close the door on Russia. It’s a stance that may help France build partnerships with more neutral states across the world, but it does nothing to mend the rift with eastern EU member states.

For the man about globe who presents himself as the champion of European interests, that’s an uncomfortable place to be in.

When it comes to “strategic intimacy,” it’s possible to have too many partners.

Elisa Bertholomey and Eddy Wax contributed to reporting.



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