Richard North, 09/06/2021  

Downing Street, we are told, is insisting that there can be no justification for preventing processed chilled meats from the rest of the UK being sold in Northern Irish shops.

And just to demonstrate how far this shambles of a government has declined, Defra Secretary George Eustice declared on yesterday's Radio 4's Today programme that the whole chilled meats issue was "bonkers".

This excuse for a minister then went on to say that, "I suspect that any US administration would be amazed if you were to say, for instance, that a sausage from Texas couldn't be sold to California. They really wouldn’t understand how that could even be contemplated".

Does this man really not know that the United States operates a two-tier regulatory programme? Meat produced under state supervision can only be sold within the stare. Interstate trade requires a Federally-supervised inspection programme and conformity with Federal rules. Produce must carry the Federal mark.

Thus, it is the case that, unless especially authorised by Federal Law, sausages from Texas cannot be sold to California. Eustice should have known this and should not be making such absurd remarks.

But this really does set the scene for today's talks between Frost and Šefcovic. As I wrote yesterday, the protocol seems more likely to founder "on a wave of ignorance, where the British government is floundering around in a haze, without the first idea of what it is doing, or trying the achieve". And here is living proof of that assertion.

Far from being "bonkers" – a description only used by the fundamentally unserious - the issue is really not that hard to understand. When Johnson shepherded his "oven-ready deal" through a newly-elected and compliant parliament, for it to get Royal Assent in January 2020, government and parliament was agreeing that Great Britain would step outside the EU's Single Market, assuming the status of a "third country".

By contrast, Northern Ireland was to remain within the Single Market, subject to the applicable acquis, thus creating a "wet" border between GB and the province.

The net effect of this was that, to all intents and purposes, GB exports to Northern Ireland would be treated in much the same way as exports to EU Member States – with the key difference that the border checks would be carried out by UK officials.

When it comes to the issue of what are technically classed as "minced meat and meat preparations" – which include sausages and sausage meat – Commission Decision 2000/572/EC applies, which prohibits, inter alia the import of such goods unless they have been "deep-frozen at the production plant or plants of origin".

There are sound public health reasons for such tight control over third country produce of this nature: it presents special risks and tends to be more contaminated than carcase meat. Historically, there have been serious incidents related to E. coli 0157, from which the UK has not been immune.

Thus, the restriction is absolute, with no exceptions – even for countries such as New Zealand which have SPS agreements. Decision 2000/572/EC still applies.

Despite this, Frost is calling on the EU to propose "practical solutions", to make the protocol work. He states flatly, that "Further threats of legal action and trade retaliation from the EU won't make life any easier", adding: "What is needed is pragmatism and common sense. And it is ever more urgent".

By "pragmatism", though, he seems to be expecting some form of exemption, which will allow supermarkets to continue selling chilled products in their Northern Ireland stores, as they have been doing during the "grace period" which was unilaterally extended by the UK government to 1 July.

Back to the idiot Eustice again, who says that he has "no idea" why the EU imposed "idiosyncratic" rules on the movement of chilled meat. "I suspect", he says, "it links to some kind of perception that they can't really trust any country other than an EU country to make sausages".

This foolish man clearly does not understand that the EU has very little room for manoeuvre. Under WTO anti-discrimination rules, it cannot apply rules which differ between trading partners and, if it made a special exemption for Northern Ireland, it could find other third country suppliers demanding the same treatment – which would be very hard to resist.

And as for his derogatory comments about "trust", it is not as if the UK was not warned of the consequences of leaving the Single Market, and thus walking away from the "regulatory ecosystem". Barnier made constant references to this.

In this context – rightly or wrongly – the EU lays special store by its integrated system of food safety, applying controls from "farm to fork". Simply to apply the EU's regulation is not enough. Suppliers must be fully paid-up components of the "ecosystem", which can only assured with Member States and the additional EEA members, which answer to the European Food Agency and are part of the public health surveillance system.

Furthermore, this should come as no surprise. This issue was raised in October 2020, when Defra noted that there was "no appropriate certificate of exemption which currently exists in EU law". That had me writing: "It looks very much as if the industry will have to take the hit".

Nor, at the time, was [some of] the industry under any illusion. Gavin Morris, the group veterinary manager for Dunbia, the meat processing company supplied by 30,000 British and Irish farmers, warned that the requirement to send frozen meat would put a "huge question mark" over many existing contracts.

"The view we've gathered", he said at the time, "is that a lot of existing commercial contracts for products and preparations to go to the EU fresh will just stop". He added: "The clients will say 'we don't want it frozen, thanks very much, we’ll source from somewhere else'".

And so it comes to pass that the EU is demanding its pound of flesh – to coin a phrase. But we still have infantile commentary from the likes of the Telegraph.

This paper is actively misinforming its readers by telling them that, "Under EU law, chilled meats cannot be imported by a non-EU country unless there is an animal health and food safety agreement" – something which is just not true.

But, if the Telegraph is taking an infantile view of the proceedings, The Sun is being positively pre-natal, with its headline: "BANGERS BAN BID EU ordered to drop its 'bonkers' sausage ban plan that could spark an EU-UK trade war".

In fact, there is no sense anywhere that the UK "popular" media has got a handle on this issue. Even when they are not trivialising the subject, we have the likes of the Guardian struggling to understand that this is not about border checks, but an absolute prohibition.

At this stage, therefore, we can have no way of knowing where this controversy is going to take us, but it doesn't look promising. Šefcovic could be forgiven for thinking that he was dealing with idiots and, if that is his impression, he is probably not wrong.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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