Britain has accused Emmanuel Macron and other senior EU figures of talking about Northern Ireland “as if it were somehow a different country,” as Brexit tensions flared again at the G7 summit in Cornwall.
Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, have opened up a new front in their war of words with the EU, claiming that it is not willing to respect the territorial integrity of the UK.
In spite of pleas by Joe Biden, US president, that both sides should calm the row, the G7 summit has led to heightened tensions between Britain and the EU over the post-Brexit trading regime in NI.
Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday: “We have serially seen senior EU figures talk about Northern Ireland as if it were somehow a different country from the UK.
“It is not only offensive, it has real world effects on the communities in NI. It creates great concern and great consternation.”
He asked EU leaders to consider how they would feel if Johnson talked about Catalonia, Flanders or Corsica as if they were — respectively — not fully integrated parts of Spain, Belgium or France.
“We need a bit of respect here and also frankly an appreciation of the situation for all communities in Northern Ireland,” Raab added.
The dispute centres on the different interpretations in London and the EU of the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of Johnson’s Brexit deal concerning trade in the region.
To ensure an open border in Ireland, the UK agreed to carry out some checks on behalf of the EU at ports in Northern Ireland for some goods arriving from Great Britain.
The aim was to stop goods passing unchecked, via the open border in Ireland, into the EU single market. Britain claims the EU wants to impose “draconian” checks; the EU insists it is trying to be pragmatic.
The most imminent flashpoint in the dispute comes ahead of June 30 when the EU ban on chilled meat imports is supposed to come into effect in NI, blocking the sale of British sausages and minced beef in the region. During a tense meeting on Saturday Johnson asked Macron how he would feel if Toulouse sausages were banned from being sold in Paris.
Macron, who was speaking in English, replied that it was a poor comparison. British officials claimed Macron pointed out Toulouse and Paris were part of the same “country.”
An Elysée official clarified that the French president was making a point about geography: “The president said that Toulouse and Paris are in single geographical territory. Northern Ireland is on an island.”
The French official added: “He reminded Boris Johnson that exiting the EU was a British decision and that he had to respect his word.”
But Downing Street seized on Macron’s remarks as an apparent indication that the French president did not recognise that NI was an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Raab’s allies have declined to say which other “senior EU figures” have made similar remarks.
David Frost, the UK Brexit minister who attended meetings with EU leaders in Carbis Bay wearing union jack socks, will now resume negotiations with Maros Sefcovic, his opposite number, to try to find a compromise.
The EU has threatened to impose trade sanctions on the UK if it unilaterally extends the “grace period” covering the export of British chilled meats to Northern Ireland beyond June 30.