Will future school children learn about how a row over sausages led to a crisis in which Britain’s major ally, America, became hostile, and its former EU partners turned nasty?
Will they read about a sausage dispute causing the abrogation of an international treaty, and setting in motion events that led to a united Ireland?
I fear so. The sausage imbroglio, along with its forbidding parent the Northern Ireland Protocol, took another lurch towards a showdown yesterday when the Government made a proposal to the EU which it must have known didn’t have the slightest chance of being accepted.
The United Kingdom, it will be remembered, signed a deal with Brussels to escape its clutches that involved keeping part of its territory — Northern Ireland — inside the EU Single Market, and therefore subject to the bloc’s regulations.
This arrangement of splitting a sovereign country with a trade border is unique.
French President Emmanuel Macron recently questioned whether Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but I can assure him that legally it is, as much as Truro, Cardiff or Inverness.
The consequences of this bizarre agreement were vividly described yesterday morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme by Archie Norman, chairman of Marks & Spencer, which has a large presence in Northern Ireland.
According to Mr Norman, a former Tory MP, M&S has to employ 14 full-time vets ‘simply ticking boxes and filling out forms’ to get food into Northern Ireland. Sandwiches ‘typically require three veterinary certificates to get through’.
If one page of the endless forms is completed in a blue instead of black typeface, the entire wagon is turned away. Although form-filling mistakes are incredibly rare, 40 per cent of wagons are being rejected, and the entire contents often have to be destroyed.
The consequences of a bizarre deal with Brussels that involved keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU Single Market, and therefore subject to the bloc’s regulations were vividly described yesterday by Archie Norman, chairman of Marks & Spencer
Mr Norman forecasts empty shelves and higher prices for Northern Irish consumers.
The effects of this ‘Byzantine, pointless, pettifogging bureaucracy’ will be ‘incendiary’ when people in the Province grasp that they are being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
Other UK supermarkets have made similar complaints about the difficulties of sending food to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the situation is about to get much worse.
Under the current agreement, from October no chilled meat, including sausages, will be allowed to enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The prohibition was supposed to start on June 30 but that deadline has been extended.
Supermarket foodstuffs and medicines sent from Britain to Northern Ireland will have to conform to EU rules, and be subject to checks. Retailers despatching parcels from the mainland will also be required to complete paperwork, as though for a foreign country. Even personal parcels may need a declaration.
No wonder Brexit Minister Lord Frost said yesterday that ‘we can’t go on as we are’, and that the way in which the Northern Ireland Protocol is being applied is damaging the ‘fabric’ of the United Kingdom.
Hence the Government’s proposal to operate a kind of ‘honesty box’. Customs checks and certificates would be waived on goods intended for Northern Ireland alone, and not for the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU. Medicines would be excluded from the scope of the Protocol.
Brussels has vetoed a similar scheme in the past, and its almost immediate rejection yesterday afternoon was utterly predictable — as Lord Frost must have realised.
Mr Norman forecasts empty shelves (pictured in the Donegall Place Marks and Spencer in Belfast) and higher prices for Northern Irish consumers
For one thing, the EU regards its Single Market rules as sacrosanct. It won’t tolerate divergences from its food and sanitary regulations, even in the case of Britain, whose own standards — as a recent member of the EU — remain every bit as high.
It is perfectly true that, like non-EU Switzerland, we could sign up to the bloc’s rules and regulations, but that would involve accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court, which would undo much of the point of Brexit.
The second reason Brussels won’t budge is that it has a punitive attitude towards Britain that isn’t going to change. Inspections on the comparatively small volume of goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland are responsible for 20 per cent of all checks made by the EU.
How else can one explain the heavy-handed methods employed by Brussels — lorries turned back because someone has filled in a form in blue rather than in black? It is petty-minded and vindictive, and deliberately so.
Incidentally, the same vengeful spirit can be seen in the EU’s proposal earlier this week to install Spanish border guards in Gibraltar, a British crown colony. Even the Spanish government has not directly made such an outrageous suggestion.
Needless to say, I would be overjoyed if the EU suddenly became flexible, and drew back from demanding that these onerous and intrusive rules are applied. But it’s obvious that it won’t.
Lord Frost is seemingly doing his utmost to appear balanced and reasonable so that no one will be able to say that the UK didn’t strive to come to an agreement in a civilised manner.
Critics may say, with some justice, that the Government largely has itself to blame.
Although Boris Johnson said in August 2020 that ‘there will be no border in the Irish Sea: over my dead body’, that is precisely what he has established. And must now undo.
All that can be said, in partial mitigation, is that by the time he became PM in July 2019, Theresa May had sold the pass by accepting the EU’s and Irish government’s wrong-headed insistence that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic couldn’t be monitored by cameras.
Such a system was said, not only by the EU and the Irish government but also by Irish-American politicians including (now U.S. President) Joe Biden, to threaten the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which has achieved peace of a kind in Northern Ireland.
Although Boris Johnson (pictured at a vaccine centre in February 2021) said in August 2020 that ‘there will be no border in the Irish Sea: over my dead body’, that is precisely what he has established
What an irony that the ‘solution’ the EU foisted on the UK now presents a much greater danger to peace. Many Unionists and Loyalists bitterly resent the wall erected within their own country. There was unrest in the spring, which could erupt again.
In fact, it’s probably safe to say that if the European Union were allowed to have its way — and turn Northern Ireland into virtually a separate country — the Good Friday Agreement would be in great peril. If only President Biden could get his head around that proposition.
The truth is that the EU and the Irish government are largely responsible for the present unhappy state of affairs — though that doesn’t prevent dunderhead Irish ministers from repeating ad nauseam that it’s all the fault of Brexit. Will they ever understand that the UK has left the EU, and both sides have to make the best of it?
Under the terms of the Protocol, Britain has the right to trigger Article 16, which would allow it to suspend parts of the Brexit deal. But even that draconian course of action might not suffice, and complete repudiation of the Protocol may be necessary.
It’s still not too late for Brussels to show good sense. But I’m afraid I see trouble ahead: ructions in Northern Ireland, the EU and the UK at loggerheads, and President Biden ignorantly lambasting America’s closest ally.
None of which will be good for Europe and the West, as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin smirks and China continues its march towards global supremacy.