Just six months into Brexit and relations between Brussels and London have hit a new low with veiled threats of trade wars from the EU if the UK does not comply with an agreement Boris Johnson signed over Northern Ireland almost 18 months ago.
What is the row about?
Ostensibly it is about an upcoming ban on sausages and other chilled meats such as minced beef being exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Both territories are part of the UK single market and before Brexit this was never an issue.
But under Brexit rules designed to prevent a border on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland observes EU rules on agrifood standards. EU rules prohibit chilled meats coming into the wider single market from non-EU countries such as China for health reasons and from 30 June this rule is due to apply in Northern Ireland.
The UK’s environment secretary, George Eustice, described the “outright ban” as “bonkers”.
Did the UK sign up to this?
Yes. In December both sides agreed to this with the detailed list of prohibited and restricted meats set out in a unilateral declaration by the UK that spelled out the new rules for chilled meats.
Are there not wider issues at play?
Yes, but food is the most difficult issue to solve with both sides digging in. The UK accuses the EU of being inflexible over rules designed for other parts of the world and the EU accuses the UK of failing to implement other parts of the protocol including the building of border posts and giving the EU access to live data on goods entering Northern Ireland which would enable it to properly examine the risks involved.
About 30 contentious points are being discussed by London and Brussels after the real-life impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland emerged, including the trade of cancer medicines and potted plants transiting from Great Britain. The EU has said it is working hard to sort out the medicines issue and agreement is expected on seven or eight issues including the sale of second-hand cars, free movement for guide dogs and pedigree livestock.
What are the London talks about?
The Brexit minister, Lord Frost, and a European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, are having four hours of talks on Wednesday but there is a little chance of a breakthrough to calm the waters. Just two hours have been devoted to the issue of Northern Ireland and EU citizens with input from delegates from 27 member states. “This was never going to be the forum for solutions,” said one Northern Ireland observer.
Is there a backup plan?
Politico on Wednesday reported that EU officials and diplomats had floated the idea of checking all goods coming from the island of Ireland into the rest of the single market. Such a plan, if confirmed, would mean throwing Ireland under a bus so is unlikely to be a runner. However, it will fuel the UK’s position that the EU is prioritising the single market over peace in Northern Ireland.
Can it be solved?
Both sides have been making heavy weather out of the dispute, adding to growing frustration among Northern Ireland businesses who have pleaded with politicians to end the blame game and come up with practical solutions.
“This a new situation, that requires new thinking and new solutions,” said Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.
The EU has suggested a temporary food standards or veterinary agreement would do away with 80% of the checks but the UK said has ruled out any deal that would involve the UK following EU rules even for a period of a few years as it fears this would hinder its trade negotiations elsewhere.
Ireland and the EU will be hoping the US president, Joe Biden, will apply pressure on Boris Johnson when they meet in Cornwall at the G7 summit.