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From Bad To Wurst: How A “Sausage War” Butchered Boris Johnson’s Big G7 Moment And Signalled Further Brexit Battles To Come

9 min read

The G7 should have been the biggest geo-political event of Boris Johnson’s career: a chance for the UK to sign ambitious agreements on climate change, vaccines, and strengthen a global position against China and Russia.

Instead, he finds the event overshadowed by a row over sausages. The trouble began as he made his way to Cornwall from PMQs on Wednesday, leaving his Brexit negotiator Lord Frost to hold crisis talks with the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič. A diplomatic source familiar with how the talks progressed described them to PoliticsHome as “brutal”. 

The row is, in fact, not just about sausages: it’s about border checks on a whole host of things - from the travel of pets to exporting plant products as the two sides debate the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that established a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Chilled meats are the first sortie in a potential wave of battles about red tape, with grace periods on other food products and parcels due to run out on 1 October, and crucially, the transport of medicines at the start of next year.

Things have gone so badly Frost was scrambled to Cornwall to provide a Brexit bulwark for the PM in meetings with European leaders. 

The decision angered MPs as it forced him to cancel a long-awaited appearance in front of the culture committee to discuss how Brexit has affected music industry touring. Instead he was providing support for Johnson in a trilateral with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council – with Emmanuel Macron's claim that "nothing is renegotiable, everything is applicable" ringing in his ears.

Privately, Number 10 had hoped they could rely on Joe Biden to help the EU see sense and simmer down tensions over the Northern Irish border, especially given America’s unique relationship to the Irish peace process.

But while the US President is undoubtedly a transatlanticist, he is even more proud of his Irish roots, and UK hearts would have sank to see him quote the poet WB Yeats in his very first engagement upon arrival, paraphrasing the famous closing line to “Easter 1916” about the Irish war for independence. 

If hopes were not already dashed that Biden would side with London, then an eye-catching story in The Times on Thursday morning, just hours before he was due to meet Johnson in Carbis Bay, finished the job.

It revealed America had issued a stinging rebuke accusing the UK of imperilling the Good Friday Agreement, with senior representative Yael Lempert sending a “demarche”, a rarely-used formal diplomatic message.

Sources in the administration tried to row back, briefing heavily that what was being said behind the scenes was no different to what was being said in public, and there were no “threats or ultimatums” being doled out.

But The Times stood by their story and in any case the damage was done, the first-ever in-person meeting between the two men overshadowed by claims of inflaming tensions and putting at risk the Good Friday Agreement, of which America is a guarantor.

In truth it was long in the making, as US politicians and senior Irish-American figures have had months of detailed talks with groups in Northern Ireland about the protocol.

It has also been seen as another victory for Ireland’s secret soft power, and their understanding of how to harness the might of the European Union and America to their benefit on Brexit.

Two years before the UK even voted to exit the EU the Irish government had been working on Brexit strategies, with officials cornering British counterparts at summits to find out what would happen if Leave won. The Theresa May years were subsequently characterised by Irish diplomats outmanoeuvring the UK on Brexit. 

Last month Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney held meetings at Shannon Airport with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, where they “reaffirmed their commitment to protecting the gains of the Good Friday Agreement for all communities in Northern Ireland.”

By contrast, the UK government only announced this week that it is sending an official to Washington for three months to communicate its position on the protocol to US policymakers.

Despite repeated suggestions in recent years Ireland’s interests would be sidelined, the EU has shown it is willing to go to the mattresses over the single market and how it relates to the border, and with a committed hibernophile in the Oval Office, they have America’s support too.

Biden was always likely to be receptive to a diplomatic push by Dublin, as shown by the fact just hours after the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 he was given an honorary doctorate from the city’s Trinity College, telling the audience: “We would have preferred a different outcome.”

The President, who has roots in the counties of Mayo and Louth, infamously responded to being asked for a word with the BBC with the quip: “I’m Irish.”

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has appointed former Ireland and Lions rugby player Trevor Ringland as a special envoy, but Matt O’Toole, an SDLP MLA and former Downing Street official, said the strength of the Irish-American relationship “has been seriously underestimated in London”.

“People talk about the special relationship between the UK and US and obviously they have close strategic and historical ties and lots of points of contact,” he said.

“But it is also true that Ireland and island of Ireland have a very close and special relationship with the US, which is based less on security and strategic interests, and more on soft power, personal connections, and Irish migration to America.”

The former government special advisor on Europe Raoul Ruparel told PolHome: “Going forward, the UK needs to do a better job of explaining its viewpoint to people in Washington beyond the President and the main leaders. 

“The Irish lobby is very strong in Washington and is very active in explaining its viewpoints.”

Ruparel, who helped lead the Brexit negotiations for Theresa May, was gloomy about the prospects of resolving the protocol row:  “It’s hard to see a landing zone at the moment. I’m not feeling particularly optimistic. 

“At this point, neither side looks like giving up and saying: ‘Let’s just talk about your preferred option’.”

Part of the problem is that both Frost and Sefcovic have tried to offer solutions - the UK wants the EU to recognise its standards without the need for close alignment, while Brussels says only close alignment will remove the need for checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea - but both have made it clear they could not agree to each other’s proposals.

Regardless of how reasonable the British argument seems – what country would sign up to internal checks within its own borders – the EU never tires of pointing out this was the agreement Johnson signed up to, and its insistence on sticking rigidly to the letter of it can hardly come as a surprise given the past five years.

The Conservative MP David Jones says Brussels is going to have to change tack if a solution is to be found.

The former Brexit minister and deputy chair of the ERG told PolHome he could understand the EU’s fears about goods with diverging standards entering their internal market, but added: “The EU have always adopted an ultra-legalistic approach to problems. 

“Such an approach is perfectly reasonable on many occasions but when you're dealing with Northern Ireland and the problems it has been through over the decades it’s clear that is not going to work. 

“That's why we've got the Belfast agreements in the first place, which [were] founded upon pragmatism. 

“It was a pragmatic solution to what appeared to be an intractable problem. And I think in all frankness the EU should weigh that very, very carefully.”

He said America sent a “clear signal they do expect there to be some pragmatism between the UK and the European Union”, and played down the idea Ireland had done a better job of wooing the US on the protocol.

“I don't think that the Biden administration is so unsophisticated, I think that it's got some extremely sensible people advising it”, Jones added.

He said they will be paying more attention to David Trimble, former first minister of Northern Ireland and a Nobel peace prize winner, who wrote this week that it is “EU intransigence” that threatens the Good Friday agreement, not the UK.

He said a similar situation to the one New Zealand has with the EU, where there is equivalence and recognised standards on goods but not full alignment, could be a way through the impasse.

If not then the UK could be forced to invoke Article 16 of the joint agreement, which allows either party to take unilateral measures if applying the protocol "leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”.

Jones admits that is not a long-term solution, with some claiming it will lead to a full trade war with Brussels, but added: “At the moment it's obviously a bit wobbly , but I would hope that ultimately, things will resolve itself when people realise what is at stake.”

As Johnson prepares for a barbecue on the beach tonight he is hoping sausages will not be on the menu again.

Additional reporting by Adam Payne

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