Let’s get to the meat of the issue (Image: DARREN STAPLES/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX)
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The EU and UK are locked in a deadlock over sausages.
Northern Ireland could now face a ban on British chilled mince, sausages and chicken nuggets at the end of the month.
Talks between UK Brexit chief Lord Frost and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in London broke up without agreement today – with the EU warning that patience is "wearing very thin”.
Of course, the row is about much more than just meat.
It affects the whole foundation of peace in Northern Ireland.
UK sources close to the negotiations said: "Nobody wants to get into a trade war or anything close to it."
But could we? Here’s what the row is about, and why there’s an argument about who should shoulder the blame.
What’s the sausage ban?
Since Brexit rules began on 1 January 2021, the UK has been banned from exporting “chilled meat preparations” to the EU.
This includes chilled mince, raw sausages and, according to a Tory minister, chicken nuggets.
While Boris Johnson ’s 1,426-page Brexit trade deal does remove tariffs, it does not remove health standards and checks on meat.
The EU and UK each have their own independent "sanitary" rules on products of animal origin.
That means UK exports must pass EU checks – and chilled meat preparations are banned entirely.
EU countries are still allowed to export meat preparations to the UK until October 1. After that, the products must be frozen before they’re traded in either direction.
Graffiti reading 'No Irish Sea border' near Belfast City centre
Why is Northern Ireland affected?
Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but has to follow some EU customs and single market rules.
In particular, Northern Ireland must comply with EU Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks on products of animal origin.
This is because Boris Johnson agreed to leave the region under some EU rules as the price for getting his 2019 Brexit deal finished.
It was designed as a compromise, to ensure goods aren’t then halted when crossing the seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
But the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the 2019 Brexit deal, has enraged Unionists by creating a border down the Irish Sea.
And it means the ban is now set to hit sausages travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland – even though both sides are in the UK.
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Why has this issue come up now?
The EU and UK last year agreed a six-month “grace period” for sausages to keep moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
That grace period is now coming to an end on June 30 and there is still no solution – risking shortages in Belfast supermarkets.
That has ratcheted up tensions at a time when there is already Loyalist anger over the Northern Ireland protocol and threats against port staff.
Whose fault is it?
UK ministers have tried to attack the EU sausage ban as “nonsensical”, but they’ve known about it for years.
The UK signed Northern Ireland into this position in international law, knowing there was no solution to the problem at the time.
Boris Johnson falsely claimed there was “no question of there being checks” on goods crossing the Irish Sea – he should have known that wasn’t true at the time.
The UK signed a “unilateral declaration” making clear there would be restrictions on chilled meat preparations from July 1.
Boris Johnson at a North Yorkshire sausage factory during the Tory leadership campaign
Tories point to a line in the 2019 Protocol saying it will not “prevent the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access” for goods crossing the Irish Sea.
A UK source added: "Normal EU practice for countries is just to suggest the law has to be implemented and that's that, but we did hope for something a bit better in this context."
What will happen next?
The UK is threatening to extend the six-month grace period on meat trade across the Irish Sea without the EU's permission.
A UK source said: "There are 21 days to go. That’s the deadline. There’s still plenty of time to talk to try to agree something before that point."
But the EU has threatened tariffs in return.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic vowed "swift, firm and resolute" retaliation if the UK chooses to extend the grace period unilaterally, in defiance of international law.
He said the EU would assess "all options" – including suspending trade or services parts of the the six-month-old Brexit trade deal, or slapping tariffs on UK exports.