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British sausage as key ingredient in talks shows how farcical NI protocol row has become

UK prime minister ready to use every available trick to wriggle out of international deal

The arrival of the British sausage on the table as a key ingredient in the stand-off between the UK and the European Union is an illustration of just how farcical the row over the Northern Ireland protocol has become. However, it does indicate how Boris Johnson and his government are prepared to use every trick in the book to wriggle out of an international agreement.

It is more than 40 years since the fictional politician Jim Hacker, in the classic BBC comedy serious Yes Minister, staged a phoney row with the European Commission in Brussels over the future of the British sausage. The ploy was portrayed as generating huge popularity for Hacker with the Tory press and the electorate.

It would be no surprise if Johnson himself has no idea of where he wants to end up

Now it appears to be a case of life imitating art with the arch-populist Johnson outdoing Hacker with shameless playing to the gallery. The problem is that the real-world consequences of such cynical political game-playing have the potential to damage to peoples’ livelihoods and even foment violence.

There is no doubting that the protocol has raised tensions in Northern Ireland and caused deep anxiety among loyalists. However, the casual way the British minister David Frost, who is responsible for overseeing its operation, is using it as a political ploy to pressurise the EU is deeply worrying. At one level it is laughable that Frost's deployment of the British sausage comes from the same political playbook as Randolph Churchill's use of the Orange card in 1886, to foment opposition to the First Home Rule Bill, but that does not make his casual stoking of tension in the North any less dangerous.


Belligerent attitude

As far as relations with the EU are concerned Frost’s belligerent attitude has reinforced a growing view in Brussels that the UK has no intention of honouring the agreement Johnson signed up to in October 2019 in order to avoid the damaging economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit.

Now, with the UK focused on trying to do trade deals with the US and other countries, the British sausage is actually a proxy for the movement of all sorts of processed food between Britain and Northern Ireland. The plan is to diverge from EU standards so that in the event of a UK-US trade deal controversial items such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef that infringe EU rules can be sent to the North.

The dizzying shifts in the endless Brexit negotiations since 2016, when taken in tandem with Johnson’s penchant for brinkmanship, mean that there is no knowing what the outcome of the current impasse will be. It would be no surprise if Johnson himself has no idea of where he wants to end up.

Frost's ticking off doesn't seem to have had much effect and Johnson has brought him along to Cornwall as back up to justify the British position

The presence of Joe Biden in Cornwall for the G7 meeting today is likely to have some influence of the course of events, if only for the optics. Johnson is desperately keen to establish good relations with the new US president in order to portray himself as a statesman on the world stage – and Biden has made no secret of his view that the provisions of the protocol should be implemented.

It appears that Biden has already issued a rebuke to the British government with the most senior US diplomat in the UK, Yael Lempert, accusing Frost at a meeting last week of inflaming tensions with his opposition to checks at ports in Northern Ireland. So far, Frost’s ticking off doesn’t seem to have had much effect and Johnson has brought him along to Cornwall as back up to justify the British position.

While the chances are that some fudge may emerge as a short-term solution, the Irish Government needs to be prepared for some hard choices if the worst comes to the worst and Johnson openly breaches the protocol in defiance of the US president and the inevitable retaliatory action from the EU.

Doomsday scenario

A doomsday scenario for Ireland, which was floated on the Politico London website during the week, suggested that the entire island of Ireland would face restricted access to the EU single market, if the British bin the protocol. EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic quickly scotched the report, saying it was simply not true. Informed sources in Brussels backed him up saying there is zero possibility of the EU reversing its entire strategy since 2016 and throwing Ireland to the wolves to appease the British.

However, the EU will have to defend the single market come what may. While it will surely counter British bad faith by imposing stiff retaliatory tariffs on goods and services coming from the UK it will also require the Irish authorities to ensure that the single market is properly defended.

The only way this can be done is through the imposition of customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The entire focus of the Irish diplomatic effort between 2016 and 2019 was to ensure that this would not happen and the agreement between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson at the Wirral in October 2019 appeared to have averted it by putting an economic border in the Irish Sea. If Johnson reneges on that deal the Government here will have no option but to impose an effective economic border between North and South.