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UK And EU Tensions Over Northern Ireland Simmer Ahead Of Protocol Crunch Meeting

UK And EU Tensions Over Northern Ireland Simmer Ahead Of Protocol Crunch Meeting
4 min read

The mood is sour ahead of a key Joint Committee meeting of UK and European Union officials on Wednesday over how issues caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol should be tackled.

The two sides remain at loggerheads in what has been dubbed the "sausage trade war".

One Brussels figure said "you can say that again" amid multiple reports of growing tension and suspicion between London and Brussels. Another told PoliticsHome: "It's not clear that the UK government is interested in rebuilding the trust".

David Frost, the Cabinet Office minister who oversees the UK's relationship with the EU, will meet with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic tomorrow morning in a bid to find common ground on how the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland can be altered.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into effect at the start of the year, the province follows EU trading rules in order to avoid a contentious hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

However, the arrangements — which Boris Johnson's government negotiated and agreed to with the EU last year — have created new red tape for businesses in Great Britain sending goods to Northern Ireland, particularly food and agri-food. 

Businesses have experienced delays to trade and some have opted to stop sending goods across the Irish Sea altogether.

The arrangements have also contributed to recent unrest in Northern Ireland's loyalist communities, with unionists saying the new trade border is an assault on their identity. 

The UK side led by Frost believes the EU is taking too much of a legalistic approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol and should agree to reducing the number of checks taking place.

However, Brussels has accused the government of failing to uphold its commitment to implementing the Protocol, and argues the best way to eliminate paperwork would be the UK aligning with EU rules through a "veterinary agreement," which Johnson and Frost have so far rejected.

EU figures are also frustated with public statements made by UK government figures about the Northern Ireland Protocol which they believe amount to trashing it and say are damaging trust. 

Tensions have escalted this week in the so-called "sausage trade war". 

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, sausages and other chilled meat produced in Great Britain will no longer be able to enter the province as of July 1.

The government believes the looming regulation is without justification. On Tuesday, a Downing Street spokesperson said "there is no case whatsoever" for the prohibition and George Eustice, the environment secretary, has described the rules as "bonkers".Reports that the government is considering delaying the ban if there is no agreement with the EU have caused consternation in Brussels, with the bloc reportedly mulling slapping tariffs on the UK in retaliation. The EU has already taken legal action against the government this year for unilaterally overriding the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In an article for The Telegraph today, Sefcovic said the bloc will not be shy in reacting "swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations”. 

EU sources this week were pointing to a tweet by former MP Gavin Barwell, who served as chief of staff to ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, which said the government understood the consequences of its Brexit deal and "intended to wriggle out of it later".

The Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group today urged the two sides to work together to find a solution, warning that the current arrangements were "undoubtedly having an impact" on day-to-day life in the province and that the disruption would only get more severe.

"We cannot afford another missed opportunity at the Joint Committee as we saw earlier in the year,” said a spokesperson for the group representing multiple industries in Northern Ireland.

No breakthrough is expected at tomorrow's Joint Committee meeting, however, with one EU official telling PoliticsHome: "We are going in circles on SPS [Sanitary & Phytosanitary]".

Figures in Dublin who spoke to PoliticsHome are hopeful that President Joe Biden's visit to the UK for the G7 summit might convince Johnson to soften his opposition to aligning with EU rules.

One described the pair's first in-person meeting as a "very important" moment. 

The pair will hold bilateral talks on Thursday afternoon, with Biden expected to express his support for the Northern Ireland Protocol and urge the Prime Minister to not renege on his Brexit deal with the EU. 

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