Argument

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Boris Johnson’s ‘Sausage War’ Was Deadly Serious

The European Union and Britain are confronting whether international politics is a matter of law or chaos.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
Boris Johnson holds up a string of sausages around his neck during a visit to Heck Foods Ltd. headquarters, as part of his Conservative Party leadership campaign tour  on July 4, 2019 near Bedale, United Kingdom.
Boris Johnson holds up a string of sausages around his neck during a visit to Heck Foods Ltd. headquarters, as part of his Conservative Party leadership campaign tour on July 4, 2019 near Bedale, United Kingdom. Pool/Getty Images

Tensions have risen again between the United Kingdom and the European Union in recent weeks, this time over the import of sausages and other chilled meats from the rest of the U.K. into Northern Ireland. It looks like a technical dispute that can be solved with some flexibility on both sides. But make no mistake: This “sausage war,” as the British press calls it, is deeply political. The U.K. is challenging the rules-based order that is the raison d’être of the EU, and is trying to force the EU into accepting that the Brexit deal does not need to be adhered to when the U.K. does not like its legal provisions. Two fundamentally different worldviews are colliding here, head-on.

The latest move started in mid-June, when the U.K. asked the EU to extend the grace period that covers the import of chilled meats into Northern Ireland from June 30 to Sept. 30. This would provide “a bit of breathing space,” as U.K. minister and former Brexit negotiator David Frost said, for the standoff between London and Brussels about full implementation of the rules for chilled meats that, according to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland of December 2020, are supposed to come into force on July 1.

Brussels has apparently granted the request. But the EU was of two minds. The fact that the British asked for the extension this time was considered, in a way, progress. In March, London had prolonged grace periods for other imported goods unilaterally, in violation of the agreement, without asking the EU. The EU subsequently went to court for breach of treaty.

Tensions have risen again between the United Kingdom and the European Union in recent weeks, this time over the import of sausages and other chilled meats from the rest of the U.K. into Northern Ireland. It looks like a technical dispute that can be solved with some flexibility on both sides. But make no mistake: This “sausage war,” as the British press calls it, is deeply political. The U.K. is challenging the rules-based order that is the raison d’être of the EU, and is trying to force the EU into accepting that the Brexit deal does not need to be adhered to when the U.K. does not like its legal provisions. Two fundamentally different worldviews are colliding here, head-on.

The latest move started in mid-June, when the U.K. asked the EU to extend the grace period that covers the import of chilled meats into Northern Ireland from June 30 to Sept. 30. This would provide “a bit of breathing space,” as U.K. minister and former Brexit negotiator David Frost said, for the standoff between London and Brussels about full implementation of the rules for chilled meats that, according to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland of December 2020, are supposed to come into force on July 1.

Brussels has apparently granted the request. But the EU was of two minds. The fact that the British asked for the extension this time was considered, in a way, progress. In March, London had prolonged grace periods for other imported goods unilaterally, in violation of the agreement, without asking the EU. The EU subsequently went to court for breach of treaty.

But can the British be trusted this time, even if the deadline moves to Sept. 30? Or could the request for a longer grace period be a trick to postpone, and ultimately undermine, the protocol signed by both parties? Could this be an attempt to renegotiate the deal?

It is clear that less than six months after the U.K. “took back control” from the EU, after a membership of almost 50 years, trust is already in short supply. In Brussels and other EU capitals, suspicion is growing that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the withdrawal agreement and the protocol simply to get elected and get Brexit over the line—with no intention to implement all the detailed provisions that both sides had painstakingly negotiated and agreed. Has it been Johnson’s plan all along to balk at the provisions he didn’t like and create a fuss to pressure the EU into concessions he had failed to get at the negotiating table?

Whatever the case, it has started to dawn on Europe that the Brexit negotiations may not have ended in December 2020—indeed, they may have only just started—and that the British refusal to implement the agreed rules on chilled meats, as well as its fierce accusations of European inflexibility and “legal purism,” are part of a broader strategy toward a better deal for the U.K.

A long profile of the British prime minister in the Atlantic magazine has only heightened those fears. In the article, one of Johnson’s closest advisors says that the prime minister and his team believe Britain has been “living out a foreign policy of a world that has gone.” Beijing and Moscow have shown the limits of this rules-based multilateralist order, the advisor says. Britain can no longer afford to be a “status quo power” naively trying to keep on life support a nearly defunct system. “The world is moving faster,” the advisor added, “and therefore we have got to get our shit together and move faster with it.”

Seen in this light, the clashes about rules for importing chilled meats into Northern Ireland—which is part of the U.K. but remains in the EU’s single market and therefore must follow the EU rulebook—are neither about meat imports nor about European inflexibility. If the U.K. has indeed stopped believing in a rules-based order, it simply means two worldviews are colliding. On one side, there is Boris Johnson, who sees the world as chaotic and unpredictable. Johnson loves chaos, the Atlantic profile argues (the piece’s headline is “The Minister of Chaos”). The EU, on the other hand, is designed to bring order into chaos. In fact, European integration was started in the 1950s to make the world less chaotic and more predictable by harnessing European countries into agreements and treaties, and later letting third countries dock, too.

The U.K. has always known the agreements on Northern Ireland would be difficult. To avoid drawing the EU’s external border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, which would jeopardize peace in Ireland, London and Brussels decided to keep Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union. This meant that the EU external border would be in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and that goods coming in had to be inspected right there.

This arrangement was negotiated in detail. British supplies to Northern Irish stores had to meet strict EU food regulations, beefed up in the 1990s when mad cow disease threatened the lives of EU citizens. London promised to implement those rules. It would check and inspect the comprehensive paperwork for EU customs, and of course the meat itself. It committed to help Northern Irish shopkeepers and transport companies to run this complicated process as smoothly as possible. London also agreed to send relevant data to EU customs and give it access to its import clearing databases, so EU inspectors could remotely assess how things were going. During the first six months, until July 2, there would be a “light” regime to give all involved time to adjust.

For the EU, this operation carried a substantial risk: It allowed its external border to be guarded by a third country. EU customs officials and border guards could not be seen policing the EU border, because it runs through U.K. territory. So, the Europeans had to trust Johnson and his customs agents to implement their rules.

In La Grande Illusion, his account of the Brexit negotiations with the U.K., former EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier spells out the risk the EU took by choosing to trust Johnson: “To avoid the consequences of a Brexit that the British government initiated itself, it [the U.K.] will try everything to get back through the windows into a single market whose door it has just slammed shut behind it.”

This could be a hint to what is happening now: When it comes to chilled meat, London has not kept its promises. It hardly prepared supermarkets and transporters. It is not sending data to EU customs officials. The import clearing databases EU officials should be able to log into are not operational. There is no way the EU can check whether any inspections are being done at all on meat, let alone tell whether such meat ends up not just in Northern Ireland supermarkets but in Irish ones as well, which would mark yet another violation of the protocol.

In short, it does not look like the U.K. is preparing to ever end its supposed transition period. Did London ever seriously intend to make the July 1 deadline?

Already in November 2019, Raoul Ruparel, Europe advisor to Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, sketched out the advantages of violating parts of the withdrawal agreement or the protocol in the House of Commons. If the U.K. breaks its promises, Ruparel said, Brussels can use dispute resolution and arbitration mechanisms set out in the withdrawal agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement of December 2020. But this takes months: The legal action the European Commission initiated against the U.K. in March will take approximately 18 months before there will be a verdict. But more importantly, the question is if the remedies can even force a change. The U.K. government could reimburse companies, Ruparel said, for any costs incurred for failing to follow the protocol rules. The question then becomes “whether that fine is better than the cost to business or lower than the cost to business of actually implementing to the letter of the agreement.”

When the chilled meats dispute erupted in early June, another prominent member of Johnson’s Conservative Party, May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell, tweeted: “It’s tempting to believe that—despite all the warnings—the government ‘underestimated the effect of the protocol,’ but I’m pretty sure it’s not true. They knew it was a bad deal but agreed it to get Brexit done, intending to wriggle out of it later.”

All this suggests that the standoff on chilled meats—whether the deadline is June 30 or Sept. 30—is less an incident than part of a longer game. So far, the U.K. has shown a clear interest in questioning Brexit agreements rather than following them. If the EU wants these agreements to survive, it has to stick to them while avoiding political slip-ups or procedural mistakes—as the U.K. will immediately use such errors to portray the agreements as unworkable and unfair, and demand concessions.

It is in the EU’s interest to keep engaging with the U.K. and showing understanding for Northern Ireland, and not retaliate or be overly strict. For the EU, it is of utmost importance that the border arrangements in the Irish Sea work. If they break down, with the U.K. ceasing inspections on imports into Northern Ireland completely, the EU will have to impose inspections itself to protect the single market. That would mean a border either in Ireland or somewhere between Ireland and the EU. This would pit the EU against Ireland, which desperately wants to avoid such a border. Such a divisive scenario would weaken the EU’s position—probably not an unwelcome development for London.

Since de-escalation is in its best interest, it makes sense that the European Commission convinced EU member states—including France and Germany, which are losing patience with the U.K.—to avoid an outright trade war over British sausages and agree to extend the grace period. In exchange, it demanded firm British commitments to meet certain conditions and targets. The coming three months will then be used to find solutions for the veterinary, technical, and other types of problems with chilled meats crossing the Irish Sea.

Success is not ensured. More drama is definitely in the cards. And this is just about chilled meat.

This episode leaves no doubt that Brexit will keep officials in Brussels and other EU capitals on their toes for years to come. The EU’s mission to uphold the rules-based world and keep chaos out is getting harder by the day.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

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