Brussels has wisely taken the sizzle and spice out of the “sausage war” between the UK and the EU, but the fundamental problem is that Boris Johnson is still seemingly unwilling to stomach the consequences of Brexit he has chosen.
Few would want the vocabulary of war, trade or otherwise, to have any place in issues relating to Irlanda del Norte en 2021, but this was where things were a few weeks ago, with the talk of tariffs and tit-for-tat measures over the UK’s failure to implement the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement.
Sensibly, the EU has recognised that no matter how frustrating the UK government might be, there are bigger things at stake. The rhetoric has been dialled down.
What is less rosy is that the fix – a three-month extension of a grace period on the rules regarding sausages and mince – came accompanied by two unilateral statements, offering rather different understandings, and highlighting the fundamental problem that the prime minister’s choices have thrown up.
For the EU it is time to implement what was agreed, while the UK sees it as a time to renegotiate. What actually now occurs is probably somewhere in the middle – but the tension between the positions will continue to be difficult to handle.
Johnson signed up to an arrangement in the autumn of 2019 that directed that all goods travelling to Northern Ireland from Great Britain would have to follow EU rules.
There is a commitment from both sides to make this as light-touch as possible within EU law, but everything that Brussels experiences from the way this government acts suggests that it regards light-touch as being no touch at all.
For example, in the issue at hand today: under EU rules, chilled meats, including “meat preparations” such as sausages, have to be sent frozen into the bloc from a non-EU country with which it does not have an all-encompassing veterinary agreement. This applies to trade from Britain, as Northern Ireland has in effect stayed in the single market for goods under the terms of protocol.
This was explicitly accepted by the UK government in annex two of the protocol and reaffirmed last December when a six-month grace period was agreed to allow businesses in Northern Ireland to adjust their supply chains in order to secure such goods locally or from the Republic of Ireland.
Now we hear the prime minister suggest there was no such recognition by the UK and it would be clear madness for anyone to consider any such thing.
That is quite difficult for Brussels to digest and it is a pointer to the wider problem in the relationship.
The UK’s decision not to align with EU standards in plant and animal products has introduced a range of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on plant and animal products. There are document checks, identity checks and physical checks. This has already led to some British products not being available in shops in Northern Ireland due to the added expense to retailers. It is a red rag to some in the loyalist community. Tension is high. It is also proving to be a greater hindrance than expected by Downing Street to trade between the UK and the 27 EU member states.
The EU has offered, despite repeated rejection, a temporary Switzerland-style agreement under which the UK would align with Brussels’ rulebook for a period and 80% of the checks would disappear. Johnson and his Brexi ministro, Lord Frost, don’t like this. It smacks of rule-taking and they believe it will stand in the way of a trade deal with the US. The EU restricts the use of hormones and the chemical washing of animal carcasses, both of which are staples of the US agri-food sector.
The UK has suggested something a little more flexible to Brussels, under which checks can be spared for as long the government sticks with its current standards. Discussions would be had if there was a change of policy by either side as to whether it is significant enough for controls to be newly necessary.
The precise form of this proposal is unclear. But what baffles Brussels is that the government has repeatedly said it has no intention of lowering its standards. They see “Brexit purism” standing in the way of pragmatic solutions. It is evidently the case that Johnson wants to have his sausage and to eat it. But it isn’t sustainable.