UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has attacked EU leaders for making the "offensive" suggestion that Northern Ireland is not a proper part of the UK, as tensions over post-Brexit trading arrangements escalated at the G7 summit in Cornwall.
Asked about reported comments by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, during talks with Boris Johnson at the summit, he said: "Various EU figures, here in Carbis Bay, but frankly for months now and years have characterised Northern Ireland as somehow a separate country and that is wrong," reports the Guardian.
He said it was "a failure to appreciate what speaking around Northern Ireland in those terms and approaching the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol in those terms does. It causes damage to business from both communities in Northern Ireland. It creates deep consternation and we wouldn't talk about Catalonia or Barcelona, or Corsica in France in those ways".
A French diplomatic source rejected the idea that Macron had misconstrued the status of Northern Ireland, suggesting he had simply been pointing to the fact that it is divided from Great Britain by the sea. "I'm certain the president knows that Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain," the source said.
UK PM Boris Johnson's official spokesman declined to confirm the details of the conversation between the two men. He said "their relationship continues to be constructive" and pointed to pictures of the pair enjoying a beer at Saturday night's beach barbecue, but added: "The people of the UK would want us to continually emphasise, that is not the right way to look at the UK."
In tense discussions over the weekend that appear to be tipping the EU and the UK towards a trade war, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, have insisted the UK must implement the Brexit deal in full.
The current dispute centres on the EU's decision to bar chilled meats from crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, which has led to it being nicknamed the "sausage war". The tensions, however, have potentially more far-reaching consequences. Johnson threatened on Saturday to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol that was supposed to ease trade over the UK's only land border with the EU.
"The ball is in the EU's court," Raab told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show.
"We are willing to be flexible and pragmatic, but they must come back with the reciprocal goodwill to make that happen.
"It shows there is still a failure to appreciate what that level of misunderstanding - I think that's the polite way of putting it - of the situation in Northern Ireland can have."
Asked what he thought about the view that Northern Ireland had a separate status from the rest of the UK, he said: "I think it is offensive. We wouldn't dream of talking of the northern region of Italy, the German länder or other provinces, especially ones where there are nationalist pressures, we wouldn't dream of talking about those areas in those terms. What we want is a bit of respect from the other side, a bit of flexibility, a bit of good will."