Boris Johnson's government surprised EU 'rigidly' sticking to Brexit rules

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 02: Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference following a meeting inside 10 Downing Street on June 2, 2021 in London, England. The meeting between the prime minister and the secretary general comes after a meeting between Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and their allied counterparts yesterday. Mr Raab called on Nato allies to work together to counter
Boris Johnson's government has expressed surprise the EU is sticking 'rigidly' to the Brexit agreement. (Justin Tallis/pool)

A minister has expressed surprise that the EU is sticking “rigidly” to the UK government’s Brexit deal.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick criticised Brussels as a row continues over sausages and chicken nuggets.

It comes amid tensions over how the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is implemented in Northern Ireland.

There have been reports the government is ready to delay the agreed imposition of checks on chilled meats, such as sausages and chicken nuggets, coming to Northern Ireland from Great Britain when the current “grace period” expires at the end of the month.

Watch: EU threatens post-Brexit sausage trade war against UK

The EU has raised the prospect of a trade war if the UK fails to meet its international obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol in the deal.

Jenrick, appearing on Sky News on Wednesday, sighed: “I don’t think either side, when we signed up to the protocol, envisaged that the EU would interpret it in such a rigid and unpragmatic way.

“We’re asking them to show some common sense and enable something as simple as some chilled meats like a sausage to travel from GB to Northern Ireland.

“Because the protocol was always about ensuring the free flow of goods between GB and Northern Ireland, as it was between Northern Ireland and the European Union.

Britain's Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick walks through Downing Street in London on December 1, 2020 to attend the weekly cabinet meeting held at the nearby Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. - UK lawmakers were set to vote on a new toughened system of tiered coronavirus restrictions on December 1 with a sizable rebellion of governing Conservative party members expected. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick called for common sense. (AFP via Getty Images)

“I hope that we can sort that out because there are also things even more important than sausages at stake here, for example medicines.

“It really would be absurd if a cancer drug struggled to be dispatched from the mainland of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland. We need to sort this out.”

What is the background to the row?

The Northern Ireland Protocol was intended to ensure no return to a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

It means Northern Ireland remains part of the EU single market, which in turn requires checks on some goods, such as sausages, coming from Great Britain.

However, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has said there have been “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s implementation of the agreement.

What is the EU threatening to do?

It has raised the prospect of a trade war, with Brussels imposing tariffs and quotas on British exports, if the UK fails to meet its obligations under the protocol.

Sefcovic said that if Boris Johnson’s government takes further unilateral measures, the EU “will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations”.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic before the start of the first EU-UK partnership council at Admiralty House in London chaired by Brexit minister Lord Frost. Picture date: Wednesday June 9, 2021.
Maros Sefcovic during talks with Brexit minister Lord Frost on Wednesday. (PA)

What has Downing Street said?

Ahead of talks with Sefcovic in London on Wednesday, Brexit minister Lord Frost called for “pragmatism”, in an overnight statement.

He said: “Businesses in Great Britain are choosing not to sell their goods into Northern Ireland because of burdensome paperwork, medicine manufacturers are threatening to cut vital supplies, and chilled meats from British farmers destined for the Northern Ireland market are at risk of being banned entirely.

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“Further threats of legal action and trade retaliation from the EU won’t make life any easier for the shopper in Strabane who can’t buy their favourite product. Nor will it benefit the small business in Ballymena struggling to source produce from their supplier in Birmingham.

“What is needed is pragmatism and common sense solutions to resolve the issues as they are before us. This work is important. And it is ever more urgent.”

What happened in Wednesday's talks?

In news that came as no surprise to anyone who followed the drawn-out Brexit process post-2016, there were no breakthroughs on any areas of contention.

"We’re going to carry on talking," Lord Frost said afterwards.

The Tory peer, who is a close ally of Boris Johnson, said “pragmatic solutions” must be found and did not rule out unilaterally extending the grace period on chilled meat exports between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Sefcovic said the UK and EU's relationship is at a "crossroads" and repeated his threat of "swift, firm" action.

Watch: Wednesday's daily politics briefing