(Photo by ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Cross wires

For Britain it’s sovereignty, for the EU it’s a niggle around sausages

This week the EU announced its proposals for reform of the Northern Ireland Protocol claiming in their press release that they would remove 80 per cent of checks. 

This was duly reported as revealed truth by the BBC: “Brexit: Most NI checks on British goods to be scrapped” and others as an “End to the sausage wars“. The next day the EU’s house rag — the Financial Times — helpfully reported that five EU states were preparing retaliatory measures against the UK in case the UK refused to accept their terms. UK/EU negotiations are nothing if not predictable.

In PR, as a rule of thumb, it is usually possible for the party making the announcement to plant a story with favourable outlets and so gain the coverage they want on day one. Think of the budget  or a manifesto launch. The problem is that by day two people will have read the actual texts and different stories will emerge.

Reader, you’ll be shocked to learn that the EU has tried this trick.

But far from being accepted by the UK on pain of punishment (as a previous administration might have done) these proposals have been rejected by the Brexit Minister Lord Frost. The reason, or reasons, are many. But in large part it is because the two sides have a very different concept as to what the actual problem is.

For the UK, the Protocol is a major constitutional and economic threat to the integrity of the state. It involves an internal trade border and laws imposed on part of the UK without any democratic say.

Lord Frost is starting from here — a forlorn roadside after Mr Cummings’ car broke down

The EU’s view of the Protocol is clouded by the Irish government’s thinking which is hostile to Brexit and the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. To them, paranoid that the EU may cut them loose, the Protocol is an article of faith. To the EU the Protocol per se may be of little importance. It is a peripheral border of little economic interest which gives them little incentive to help. But although it’s peripheral to them,it seems they are only just beginning to realise it’s not peripheral to the UK. Those Brits and their sausages, why are they banging on about it?

Mutual misunderstanding is nothing new for the Protocol. From Gavin Barwell to Dominic Cummings UK politicos have always treated Northern Ireland as an afterthought. First, it was used as a vehicle to drive an all UK “Brexit in name only” and secondly as collateral damage on the way to a general election. Whether or not Dominic Cummings ever intended to subsequently remove the protocol he accepted via UK legislation (or had the knowledge or attention span to do so) we will not know, his first attempt (The Internal Market Bill provisions) was so badly mishandled it blew up in his face before it was quietly withdrawn. There was no further progress before he was sacked.

The legacy he leaves is muddy. Yes, the UK never wanted the Protocol and yes, the EU knows that. But unlike the crass Mr Cummings, the ever-professional Lord Frost can not say that it was always his intention to try and clear up after his predecessor. As the adage goes “If you want to go to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here”, but Lord Frost is starting from here — a forlorn roadside after Mr Cummings’ car broke down. So, we are left for now not with straightforward demands to remove but to improve the operation of the Protocol and the role of the European Court.

So the EU has replied to these UK concerns not on the basis that the Protocol is a major constitutional, democratic and economic problem but rather a niggle around issues such as sausages.  The EU’s press release, in that mold, has a helpful picture of a sausage and the amazing concession that Great British sausages may go to Northern Ireland if they have “individual certificates” — an individual sausage certificate — peace in our time! I can imagine the EU officials sniggered while writing that almost as much as when they came up with the idea that the Brits could argue that sausages were a part of their national identity!

An individual sausage certificate will not solve an existential constitutional crisis

If the sausage certificate is a joke solution to a peripheral issue, the proposals get worse as you wade into the text.

Firstly, the figures for the reduction of checks 80 per cent and 40 per cent cited by the BBC are plucked from nowhere and asserted in the press release, no references or evidence. No BBC fact checker could give them a bill of health (if they checked EU claims) since the text just states the checks “could be reduced” before listing a minor condition required… namely the whole UK aligns with EU food production laws. Likewise, the “concession” to let UKGB medicines into Northern Ireland comes with the condition that the UK applies EU laws on medicines. A gallic joke obviously.

The EU’s proposals for improving democratic oversight are again a fig leaf. They propose more meetings with tame EU focused trade associations and more “transparency”. You can be as transparent as you like, and eat nibbles with as many self- appointed “stakeholders” as you like, but it does not change the fact that the EU is making laws for people who have no say.

If these EU proposals are a non-solution to a peripheral issue maybe the real discussions are happening behind closed doors? Perhaps these are just an opening bid? No doubt, but the gap between these minor changes and a real genuine solution are very wide and will take a change in mindset by the EU and Irish Government.

Which takes us back to the threat by the five EU states to “retaliate”. Unfortunately for them their options are limited. Article 16 is a process within the Treaties and the EU has to follow the law. They can not switch off the UK/France interconnectors or impose tariffs at a whim. They are even less likely to remove the Financial Services chapter from the trade agreement (they refused to put one in in the first place!). The EU threats are bluster but the threats from doing nothing to the Protocol are real. Would the EU risk souring relations with its biggest most important neighbour over a peripheral issue where solutions are available? We may be about to find out.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover