What’s going on with the Brexit “sausage war”?
The EU and UK are at loggerheads again over Brexit measures to keep open the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the basic aim being to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The row centres on arrangements for shipments of chilled meat, such as sausages, into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. It worsened over the weekend when tension spilled over at an acrimonious summit in Cornwall of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations, pitting UK premier Boris Johnson against European leaders as they tried to present a unified front on the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and climate change.
A deadline looms at the end of this month for regulatory checks to be imposed on shipments of sausages and minced meat into Northern Ireland. Such checks were postponed at the start of the year via an exemption for a grace period but time is running out. Shipments would have to stop if there were no checks but Mr Johnson won’t accept that, hence the present standoff.
The latest row comes on top an earlier UK move to unilaterally extend other grace periods, which triggered legal action by the EU. All of this is part of Northern Ireland protocol, under which business in the six counties must apply European trade and customs rules to avoid checks on goods crossing the Border. To ensure the North follows European rules and thus prevent the open Border providing a UK back door into the EU single market, goods arriving from Great Britain must be checked. This is the “Irish Sea border”. Unionists oppose it and so too does the British government, even though it was Mr Johnson himself who settled the protocol with the EU.
What about that G7 summit?
The Cornwall gathering came on the heels of unsuccessful talks in London between EU and UK negotiators. In the lead-in to Mr Johnson’s first meeting at the summit with US president Joe Biden, Washington issued a rare formal rebuke to the UK over the Brexit row by way of a diplomatic demarche. The Biden-Johnson talks at the G7 proceeded without incident. But the protocol issue led to fraught exchanges at other meetings. French president Emmanuel Macron is reported to have annoyed Mr Johnson by saying Northern Ireland was not fully part of the UK. After talks with several Europeans, Mr Johnson said he would not hesitate to take unilateral action. Far from easing tensions, the summit inflamed them.
What could that mean?
Unilateral UK action could trigger EU retaliation, possibly leading to a trade war between the union and its former member state in which they would impose tariffs or other penalties on the flow of goods. That would be a disaster for Irish business, given its heavy dependence on exports to the UK and imports from it. As the loyalist marching season looms in the North, it goes without saying any drift towards a trade war would to do nothing to ease tensions there.
What does the Government say?
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has argued strongly against unilateral UK action, saying it would be “very problematic” if Mr Johnson went down that road. “It’s not about sausages per se, it really is about the fact that an agreement had been entered into, not too long ago, signed off by the British government with the EU,” Mr Martin said. “If there’s consistent, unilateral deviation from that agreement, that clearly undermines the broader relationship between the EU and the UK, which is in nobody’s interest and therefore that’s why the UK with the EU have to work very hard now in the coming weeks.”
Is there any way out?
Not for the moment, although the Taoiseach still insists a breakthrough is possible. Mr Martin says an agreement by the UK to maintain the same animal, animal product and plant health rules as the EU could eliminate 80 per cent of Irish Sea regulatory checks, thereby reducing the protocol burden. But that remains no-go territory for the British leader, who has cast Brexit as an opportunity to exercise sovereignty by pursuing trade agreements around the world without being bound by EU rules. Mr Johnson won’t go there, even though the Biden administration has signalled that agreement on EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules would not hinder a US-UK trade deal.