- Ahead of the end-June deadline, another extension to the grace period for British chilled meat exports to Northern Ireland is likely.
- The question is how this will be achieved: by agreement or via unilateral UK action, to which the EU would respond with infringement proceedings and tariff threats.
- Regardless, tension on this and related questions will remain a permanent feature of UK-EU relations for the coming years.
Shipments of sausages and cold meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be banned by the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol on 1 July if nothing changes in the next two weeks. No chilled meats are allowed to enter the EU from any “third” (non-member) country – they must be frozen instead. The checks were originally meant to come in on 1 January as part of the Brexit deal and the protocol, but their implementation was delayed to 1 July in a grace period to allow companies time to prepare and adapt.
Both sides are engaging in brinkmanship – just as they were last year on deal or no-deal. The UK is threatening a unilateral extension or invoking article 16 of the protocol, temporarily waiving its application. The EU is threatening court cases and retaliatory tariffs. Privately, both sides would prefer a negotiated outcome. However, the UK wants mutual equivalence for UK and EU rules in this area, while the EU rejects this, as mutual recognition only exists within the single market. Instead, the EU wants the UK to align dynamically with its relevant rules. But the UK’s new free trade agreement with Australia, for instance, will allow the import of some agricultural goods produced with a range of practices and pesticides so far banned in the UK. In other words, the UK is at least very gradually considering non-European standards rather than re-aligning with EU rules.
The negotiations between UK Minister David Frost and Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic have not borne fruit yet, despite agreement on a few other technical areas. PM Boris Johnson insists that the protocol states clearly that there is no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position inside the UK and that the protocol must be implemented in a way that retains the consent of both nationalists and unionists. The EU claims that Johnson knew exactly what he signed up for and must now simply honor his commitments. French President Emmanuel Macron is taking a strong stance, not least for domestic political reasons. But he somewhat undermined his own case by being quoted out of context at the G7, with remarks seen to imply that Northern Ireland was no longer fully part of the UK.
Still, the most likely outcome is that both sides will agree on a temporary extension of the grace period to allow more time for talks. Failing that, the UK government is likely to do this unilaterally, which will be met with legal action by the EU, infringement proceedings under the post-Brexit FTA, and threats of tariff reprisals. But these procedures would take time and may allow the UK government and Belfast to get through the unionist marching season in July. After that, both sides might be able to come to a compromise before legal action, infringement proceedings, and tariffs materialize. An eventual compromise could take the form of streamlined rules for those products (including but not limited to chilled meats) that are at lower risk of being transferred on to the Republic of Ireland. Trusted trader schemes could perhaps also come to play a role in this context.
However, tension on this and related issues will remain a permanent feature for the coming years. Brinkmanship and last-minute extensions are by now the standard repertoire of EU-UK relations. Regarding Northern Ireland more specifically, Sinn Fein leads the opinion polls ahead of the 2022 regional elections. This opens the prospect of the party fielding Northern Ireland’s First Minister for the first time. In contrast, the DUP has lost popularity after its bets on Brexit and Johnson have backfired spectacularly, bringing about a new border in the Irish Sea. The DUP may campaign on the promise to withdraw consent from the protocol when the regional parliament has to vote on it in 2024.
Meanwhile, the EU made its own gambles. Brussels had hoped that the Northern Ireland assembly would vote in favor of the protocol in 2024. It may still do so. But if unionists keep rallying strongly against it and low-level violence and protests keep flaring up, Northern Ireland’s status may remain permanently blurry rather than being clarified by the new international and EU rules once agreed in the context of Brexit.