Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron are now arguing about whether they’re arguing

The fish fight between the UK and France has overshadowed much of Boris Johnson’s visit to the G20 summit in Rome, where he has been trying to persuade world leaders to take radical steps to cut carbon emissions on the eve of Cop26.

On Sunday morning, Johnson and Emmanuel Macron met face-to-face for a half-hour conversation. It was just the two of them in the room at the summit centre so all we have is their own words for what was discussed, as they told it to officials on each side.

Afterwards, Macron’s aides briefed reporters that the two leaders had agreed to de-escalate the tensions over access for French fishermen to British waters. Johnson’s spokesman, however, said there had been no such deal, largely because, he argued, the UK is behaving entirely reasonably and fairly in granting fishing licences to French vessels. It is for Macron’s administration to withdraw its threats and stop trying to “punish” the UK for leaving the EU, the Downing Street spokesman told British media at a briefing in Rome.

“The Prime Minister reiterated his deep concern over the rhetoric emanating from the French Government in recent days, including the suggestion by the French Prime Minister that the UK should be punished for leaving the EU,” the Number 10 spokesman said. “He expressed his hope that the French Government would de-escalate this rhetoric and withdraw their threats.”

Macron’s team have said France will impose a series of sanctions if the UK does not address concerns that it’s failing to grant enough licences to French fishermen by 2 November. The threatened retaliation includes banning British fishing vessels from French ports, extra licence checks and tighter customs and border controls.

Johnson’s spokesman said the UK is only implementing the terms of the Brexit agreement, “as it is written down”. British officials have said they will be ready to launch legal action if France goes ahead with its threats, which the UK says will breach the terms of the Brexit trade deal it signed with the EU.

Usually, Downing Street takes trouble to characterise meetings the Prime Minister has with Macron or any leader as “constructive” or “positive”. Johnson’s spokesman was asked repeatedly to describe the mood, and say whether the PM was happy with the meeting, and simply swerved the questions.

Whatever happened, the “read out” from the UK side was far less positive than that offered by Macron’s team. The French leader wouldn’t be the first person to leave a meeting with Johnson believing he had been given a firm commitment, only to be disappointed. Equally, Macron and his aides have a vested interest in trying to spin the discussions as a victory for France. British ministers suspect the French president is acting partly for his own political ends, ahead of elections next year.

In public, Johnson insists he has “bigger fish to fry”. The focus of the G20 summit in the Italian capital is supposed to be on building momentum to tackle climate change ahead of Cop26 and, in Johnson’s words, preventing the world slipping back into the Dark Ages as a result of an environmental catastrophe.

But much of the airtime has been taken up with the French threats and counter threats. The sideshow damages the prime minister’s efforts to sell his story about climate change, just as the so-called “sausage wars” (which again saw Macron clash with Johnson) undermined his messages at the G7 in Cornwall in June.

It’s not simply a question of media coverage either. These things matter in a very practical sense, too. Every minute Johnson spends in a meeting with a fellow leader discussing rows over the legacy of Brexit – such as fishing rights and the Northern Ireland protocol – eats into the precious and limited time available for these face-to-face talks.

The Prime Minister’s team says he loves summits because they give him the rare chance to meet his counterparts and get things done. In Rome, however, he is finding that Brexit is one of the things that are not quite done yet.

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