Ministers today warned the EU they will not be allowed to ‘threaten the integrity’ of the UK as Boris Johnson faces off with leaders at the G7 in Cornwall.
The PM has signalled a tough line against the ‘excessively burdensome’ approach from Brussels to the Northern Ireland protocol as he holds talks with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.
Ministers fear traders face a complete ban on sausage exports when a ‘grace period’ on the Brexit deal expires at the end of this month.
But on the eve of the Carbis Bay gathering Mr Macron vowed to veto any overhaul of the terms, saying the idea is ‘not serious’.
After months of impasse in negotiations, Mr Johnson is now ready to extend the grace period within days, probably until at least the end of the year unless there is a breakthrough.
Whitehall sources said he believes he has ‘no alternative’ but to intervene to block Brussels rules that would ban firms in Great Britain sending chilled meat products to Ulster.
He prepared for the showdown with EU counterparts by going for a swim near the luxurious hotel where the summit is happening.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘They can be more pragmatic about the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that is win-win or they can be bloody-minded and purist about it in which case I am afraid we will not allow the integrity of the UK to be threatened.’
Boris Johnson held talks with Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit this morning. He is due to meet Angela Merkel and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen later
The PM got in the mood for the potentially explosive encounter with a swim in Carbis Bay earlier this morning
A Whitehall source said the Prime Minister had ‘no alternative’ but to intervene to block Brussels rules that would ban firms in Great Britain sending chilled meat products to Ulster
How sausages sparked a cold meat war between the UK and EU
The ‘sausage war’ row is the latest front in the ongoing stand-off between Britain and the European Union over Northern Ireland.
When Boris Johnson agreed a Brexit deal with Brussels to make Brexit happen it included the Northern Ireland Protocol.
This is a complex trade agreement that tries to deal with the fact that Ulster is the only part of the UK with an EU land border, with Ireland.
The new arrangements have caused some disruption to trade since the start of the year as firms have struggled with new processes and administration.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Ulster, the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland must remain ‘soft’, ie no ‘hard’ border posts with checks on traffic.
The NIP, which was signed off by both sides, effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market for goods in order to avoid a hard border with Ireland.
Despite Mr Johnson’s claims to the contrary, it has meant erecting a trade barrier in the Irish Sea for goods crossing from Great Britain, which have to face customs checks before entering Northern Ireland – even if they are not being taken into the Republic.
A six-month ‘grace period’ for these checks was agreed to allow the infrastructure to be put in place, which runs out at the end of June.
But the checks have infuriated the loyalist community in Northern Ireland, who are outraged at the internal UK free market is being interrupted.
Earlier this year, armed loyalist groups said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 peace agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal.
The groups said they believed Britain, Ireland and the EU had breached their commitments to the peace deal.
The UK Government has not ruled out unilaterally extending the check-free period after June 30, but that has angered the EU, which says that the UK must honour the deal it signed up to less than six months ago.
Brussels has threatened to launch a trade war against Britain if it fails to implement checks on goods entering Northern Ireland under the terms of the Brexit ‘divorce’ settlement which Mr Johnson signed.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic last said patience with the UK was wearing ‘very, very thin’ after talks in London ended in deadlock.
The source added: ‘Given the EU’s position on this I cannot see any alternative to taking unilateral action.’ The PM’s official spokesman said Mr Johnson would rather see a negotiated settlement, but warned that ‘all options are on the table’.
No 10 also rejected an EU ‘compromise’ proposal for Britain to accept ongoing alignment with Brussels rules on the grounds it would make it impossible to strike ambitious trade deals.
European leaders have warned this week that unilateral action would lead to retaliatory measures, including tariffs and quotas. The row is set to dominate the PM’s meetings with Mr Macron, Mrs Merkel and Mrs von der Leyen today.
The three leaders appeared to be co-ordinating their response yesterday when they held an impromptu get-together with Italian PM Mario Draghi and European Council chief Charles Michel at the Carbis Bay resort where the summit is being held.
Mr Macron tweeted in a pointed remark: ‘As always, the same union, the same determination to act, the same enthusiasm.’
He has already been accused of ‘posturing’ after warning the UK that ‘nothing is renegotiable’.
But last night there were signs the EU was backing down over its threats to escalate the crisis.
Irish broadcaster RTE quoted an EU source suggesting the bloc could now take a softly-softly approach for fear of falling into the ‘trap’ of inflaming tensions in the Province as the Unionist ‘marching season’ reaches its climax.
The source said: ‘The EU doesn’t want to get sucked into the stupid sausage war type narrative, where we would be seen to be coming on heavy because of things like chilled meat, sausages etc.’
EU leaders hope that US President Joe Biden will pressure the PM to back down in order to avoid increasing tensions in Northern Ireland.
But No 10 said the US President was in ‘complete harmony’ with the PM after talks on Thursday.
Mr Johnson yesterday revealed he had given Mr Biden details of the disproportionate checks being imposed by the EU on goods traded from Britain to Northern Ireland.
He told the BBC: ‘Twenty per cent of the checks conducted across the whole of the perimeter of the EU are now done in Northern Ireland, three times as many as happen in Rotterdam.’
He added: ‘There are ways of enforcing the protocol, ways of making it work that may be excessively burdensome.’
The PM insisted it would be possible to ‘sort out’ the issues. But officials are pessimistic about an immediate breakthrough.
The dispute arises out of provisions in the Brexit deal that leave Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods.
Mr Johnson accuses Brussels of taking a ‘purist’ approach to the deal and applying it to all goods crossing the Irish Sea, regardless of whether or not they are set to enter the EU.
The main summit agenda will see the leaders commit to a new plan aimed at preventing a repeat of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The leaders of the UK, US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and Italy will close the day with a barbecue on the beach, with entertainment provided by a Cornish sea shanty group and a Red Arrows flypast.
The move puts him on collision course with Emmanuel Macron (second from right), Angela Merkel and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen (right), whom he will meet for separate talks at the G7 summit in Cornwall today (pictured: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, left, and Joe Biden, second from left)