Richard North, 13/06/2021  

I can't help but think there must be more to the rhetoric on the "sausage wars" than is emerging from the G7 coverage. Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to Johnson is completely ignorant of the issues, or be totally unaware of the consequences of the actions on which he seems to be embarking.

The trouble is that you never know with that man. He could be playing to his domestic audience in the belief that the disruption and bruised feelings are worth it. Or it could be that he simply doesn't understand what is going on and thinks that he can wing it – the doctrine of "it'll be alright on the night".

But, if Johnson is intent on killing the protocol, the sense coming through from G7 is, if he does that, the UK will be treated as an international pariah. Should he establish his unwillingness to honour international commitments, none of the other big players – such as Biden – will do business with him, and he can kiss goodbye to a trade deal with the US.

On the other hand, while there is the option of a veterinary agreement on the table – in theory at least – I think the certainty exhibited by some of the trade wonks that this is the answer is misplaced.

For a veterinary agreement to function effectively, all parties – the EU, the Member States, and the UK - need to coordinate administrative, legislative and surveillance systems. The IT systems must be harmonised and capable of communicating with each other, with data-sharing agreements paving the way, and there must be close liaison with officials at all levels.

None of the wonks – or the commentariat in general - to my mind, have displayed any understanding of how a veterinary agreement works. These are complex things which take years to set up and implement.

However, because UK systems were, until recently, fully harmonised, there are some short-cuts which could be taken to ease our return to the fold. And yet, time has not stood still since 2016. The systems from which we started to detach ourselves after the referendum are not the same that are now in place.

The EU has over the period been embarking on a series of major changes to its food safety acquis, and is rapidly developing multiple IT systems to ease the functioning of different parts of the system. It is also integrating them with the separate but parallel customs administration, which is also undergoing a major shake-up. To bring us back into line is not something that could be stitched up overnight.

Therefore the wonks and others vastly underestimate the difficulties involved, in re-establishing a veterinary agreement and implementing it. And although it could be done in time, it would require real commitment from both sides, and especially the UK which would have to work hard to update systems.

With the UK working under duress, without the political commitment, leadership and allocation of resources, the conditions necessary for effective functioning do not seem to be present.

Thus, if the EU embarked on an agreement with the UK, in a matter of months it would probably be back where it started, with arguments about the UK's failures of implementation. It will perhaps have bought a little time, but be no further forward.

It is for this reason that I see the Commission's offer of a "Swiss-style" veterinary agreement largely as a bluff. Anyone who has actually read the trade agreement, and has any knowledge of how it works in practice – which probably excludes most of the commentariat – must know that this is not something which could be implemented easily and quickly.

One should also take heed of the Commission's terminology, in taking of a "Swiss-style" agreement. For reasons which are obvious when the circumstance of Switzerland and the UK are compared, it would not be possible to copy and paste the Swiss agreement, and give it a new title.

In reality, even with the best will in the world, there would have to be substantial modifications, all of which would have to be negotiated. There would also have to be some careful assessment of any final agreement to ensure compatibility with the TCA.

As we all know – from recent experience if we didn't know already – the devil is in the detail. Small differences can turn out to comprise intractable obstacles, and what appear at the outset to be simple negotiations can prove to be time-consuming and fractious.

In any event, it must be recalled that the UK has already rejected the idea of a veterinary agreement – on the grounds that it would restrict our ability to make deals with other third countries. This is a specious argument at best. Doing a deal with the EU (mainly to service the UK market) has not stopped New Zealand from meeting the specific demands of Japan, which is now its number one market for beef.

More likely, we are seeing the Johnson administration's ideological objections to the ongoing degree of integration required to eliminate border checks and to permit the trade in goods, such as chilled meat preparations, which are banned even from the likes of New Zealand.

Even though Biden, at the G7 summit, has assured Johnson that adoption of a veterinary agreement would not prejudice talks on a trade deal with the US, this has not proved sufficient to reverse UK objections. There are still no signs that a veterinary deal is being formally considered by either Johnson or Frost.

Without that option, the only pathway which would have the UK honouring its commitments would be the full and timely implementing of the protocol. The trouble is that this also requires real commitment, and resources.

As it stands, the NI sanitary inspection services – which are entirely separate from the customs function – are still not equipped to do the jobs required of there. There are still no working BCPs up and running in the province, with staff working out of temporary accommodation, there aren't enough vets and other specialist staff (and there seems to be a crayon shortage on the mainland).

The necessary IT systems are not in place, and there seems to have been no work carried out on simplifying export health certificates, to ease the paperwork burden and reduce costs.

Thus, even if Johnson had a sudden, Damascene conversion, the combined British and Northern Ireland authorities no not have the wherewithal to make the protocol work. This leave supermarkets threatening to close down operations in the province, unless arrangements can be made to facilitate the movement of goods, opening the politically damaging prospect of empty shelves, come 1 July.

Standing apart from the fray, what it begins to look like is another Johnson miscalculation . I rather think that he hoped the problem would go away by itself - all he needed to do was stamp his feet and the EU would throw him some concessions, just to avoid friction.

Now that the EU has refused to be browbeaten, and is insisting that Johnson implements the agreement he had a great part in shaping, he's got himself in a position where, through his own inertia, he's run out of options. Technically, largely through his lack of commitment and preparation, the UK is unable to implement the protocol, yet there are no other legal alternative he is prepared to take.

That leaves us with the typical Johnsonian bluster, with threats to disapply parts of the protocol, by invoking the Section 16 "safeguard" provisions, or simply abandon the protocol altogether.

One way or another, though, it seems that global leaders are beginning to get the measure of Johnson, with his chances of projecting a credible "Global Britain" diminishing by the hour.

All Johnson may achieve from his "sausage wars", therefore, is fatally to undermine trust in his government and damage the UK's international reputation. And if we see violence return, big time, to Northern Ireland, he will have still more blood on his hands.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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