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Newton Emerson: Brussels is threatening the North's food supply

Both the EU and UK are cynically using Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip

Blockade is a strong word.

Boris Johnson claims the European Commission has threatened a "food blockade" of Northern Ireland, which is clearly incorrect in the sense of physically preventing goods arriving from Britain. The European Union does not have a navy and its request for a Belfast base for its customs inspectors has been turned down.

However, the EU can certainly be described as threatening serious disruption to Northern Ireland’s food supply.

To exclude the UK from listing entirely is aggressive and anticipated nowhere in the withdrawal agreement

The first threat is from sea border checks and paperwork. Supermarkets estimate full compliance at half the cost of a typical container’s contents. This is ruinous but the UK signed up to it in the withdrawal agreement, with costs to be mitigated by discussion at the committees on the Northern Ireland protocol.

Discussions were progressing well by some reports, including a report from the UK government to Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Exempting supermarkets from compliance should be straightforward and effective. Just three firms with simple, well-tracked supply chains account for 80 per cent of all grocery sales in Northern Ireland.

It is disappointing the EU has not exempted this trade from the outset and suspicious that both sides have not agreed to clear the air by making their progress public.

However, the EU is playing hardball on the issue that is arguably within the terms of the protocol, despite its good faith requirements and “shared aim” of avoiding sea border controls.

The second, more explosive threat comes from an EU warning it will not list Britain as a permitted exporter of live animals and food of animal origin, banning all such products from crossing the sea to Northern Ireland.

Because meat is mixed in with other goods in supermarket shipments, the entire grocery supply chain would be rendered uneconomic all over again.

The EU cannot physically enforce a ban but it could make life legally awkward for the UK government and, perhaps more effectively, for private companies. Retailers and shippers with operations in the EU might hesitate to defy Brussels.

There is no doubt the threat of non-listing has been issued: EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has admitted it.

The reason he has given, that “we need to know in full what a country’s [food safety] rules are”, does not add up. The UK is continuing to observe EU rules and will have to notify the EU of any changes, even under a no-deal scenario.

Listing is a formality the EU accords to almost every nation on earth. Sector-by-sector approval is then added according to standards. For example, 21 countries can currently sell the EU meat from hoofed animals.

To exclude the UK from listing entirely is aggressive and anticipated nowhere in the withdrawal agreement.

It could be considered a case of all being fair in love and trade wars if it related only to the EU and Britain, but exploiting its impact on Northern Ireland makes a mockery of the protocol’s supposedly benign intent.

Disrupting food supplies would clearly meet the threshold and London's failure to say so is mysterious, to put it mildly

In a BBC interview on Sunday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney chastised the presenter for treating both sides of the argument as equal, when only one side has declared it will breach international law.

It is important to avoid lazy equivalence in this age of Trumpism, with its increasing echoes from London. However, it is equally simplistic to lapse into a tale of good versus bad.

Irish people should not need reminding of the EU’s ruthlessness.

The speed with which that has been forgotten suggests a haste to see unique British villainy.

In 2018, UK cabinet minister Priti Patel said Ireland's food supply could be threatened with a blockade via the British land bridge, in order to obtain negotiating leverage. Many have cited this in recent days, as if to say Brussels would never do such a thing.

Yet Brussels is threatening Northern Ireland’s food supply now, as part of negotiations. Patel’s remarks were a comment in a newspaper interview that the rest of the cabinet condemned and which went no further.

Two points of British duplicity jump out from the latest dispute. The Bill passing through the Commons to breach the withdrawal agreement does not address the inbound sea border – only state aid and exit declarations, with businesses saying the latter are of no great concern.

The UK government claims there is a technical reason why it has to leave the inbound sea border to a later Bill but no details have been forthcoming.

In any case, there is an escape clause in the protocol if its application leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

Disrupting food supplies would clearly meet the threshold and London’s failure to say so is mysterious, to put it mildly.

The obvious conclusion is that while both sides may not be as bad as each other, both are still cynically using Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip.

It takes a certain obtuseness to believe this is impossible.