A Brexit threat to the British banger in Belfast has been lifted, Michael Gove has said, as the EU and UK declared peace over the food supply across the Irish Sea.
In what some called “sausage wars”, both sides agreed a six-month delay on mandatory health checks on all chilled meats going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and a three-month grace period for all other food suppliers selling into the supermarkets and corner stores.
The deal hammered out by Gove and the European commission follows concerns raised by Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s that they would have to curb meat, dairy and fish supplies because of Brexit checks that were supposed to kick in from 1 January whether there is a trade deal or not.
“Our agreement also prevents any disruption at the end of the transition period on the movement of chilled meats. British sausages will continue to make their way to Belfast and Ballymena in the new year,” Gove told MPs on Wednesday.
The cabinet minister branded his EU counterpart Maroš Šefčovič “the sausage king of Brussels” as they shook on the deal. Government sources said conversations would continue with the EU to ensure reciprocal free flow of food products after the six-month grace period.
“We want the enduring arrangement on that. In fact we see it as the broader UK-EU issue here. We want bratwurst coming into GB and for our sausages to go into Paris. The discussion needs to be had next year,” said a source.
Traders had expressed fears that every item in a food truck would be subjected to checks, with the example of a ham and cheese sandwich requiring two health certificates for each ingredient.
The government also confirmed two other wins for the talks: no exit or export declarations needed for goods going from Northern Ireland to Britain, and no tariffs to apply to goods coming in from Britain. This will apply to trusted traders for the next three and a half years, after which the arrangement will be reviewed.
Gove said that had tariffs applied, supermarkets would have to pay and then apply for a rebate on all goods, including “58% on a pint of milk and 98% on a bag of sugar from Liverpool”.
Labour’s Hilary Benn said the deal showed “what can be achieved” when opposing sides worked together. But Glyn Roberts, an independent retailer representative, said the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, had been unable to say whether the grace period also applied to his suppliers.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that the government could make a major statement and not have this information available, which risked one third of corner stores and independent chains,” he said.
The DUP MP Sammy Wilson told the Commons that the new system threatened Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and the “real test will be and how these measures work on the ground, rather than the spin given in this house”.
Sources said the concession was made as part of a package of arrangements hammered out in an UK-EU joint committee in exchange for the UK dropping its law-breaking Brexit clauses in the internal market and taxation bills.
There has also been a deal allowing 15 EU officials to be permanently based in offices in Belfast, to help traders get to grips with the new system to and monitor enforcement by UK officials. Their presence represents a U-turn for the government months after it told Brussels it could not open an office in Belfast.
The officials will have access to all UK databases, and controls will be able to take place at any time without prior notification. They will not have a building but appropriate office space will be found, sources say.
Of the four border control posts at Northern Ireland ports, two are not yet fully completed and will function as temporary structures.
Denis McMahon, the permanent secretary in Northern Ireland’s environment department, told MPs that the border posts were 80% ready for the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January but the rollout of checks “won’t be pretty”.
Robert Huey, the chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland, said there would be delays at the border on 1 January as they did not have the time to prepare without details of checks. He told the Northern Ireland affairs select committee that health checks would apply to 100% of live animals and horses and 30% of meat such as minced beef, but some goods deemed low risk would face 1% checks.