FALMOUTH — It’s meant to be the week Boris Johnson resets the relations with the US and establishes the UK as a key player in the post-Brexit world of Covid recovery.
But the prime minister is struggling to move the conversation away from the so-called “sausage war” that he has sparked with the EU.
The row dominated the headlines in the run-up to his first ever face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden, although No.10 claimed those talks ended on Thursday with the pair in “complete harmony”.
But with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, the European Commission and European Council all arriving in Cornwall for the G7 summit, the issue is not going to go away.
Here’s everything you need to know about the sausage squabble that’s threatening to overshadow the summit in Carbis Bay:
What is the Brexit sausage war?
One of the key Brexit deals negotiated by Johnson and now-senior minister Lord Frost – the Northern Ireland protocol – created a special status for the nation so it could keep an invisible border with the Republic of Ireland and preserve peace on the island.
To do this, Northern Ireland remains a de facto member of the European single market when it comes to goods – but that means checks are required on goods entering the region from the rest of the UK, which is outside the single market after Brexit.
Johnson repeatedly promised there would be no Irish sea border or checks on GB-NI trade under the protocol he agreed, before eventually acknowledging there would be some.
But the PM has said that the EU is so far being too “purist” and “excessively burdensome” in its demands for checks, claiming they unfairly harm Northern Ireland.
Frost has threatened to unilaterally suspend checks, including on chilled meats like sausages.
In response, the EU is threatening a trade war with punitive tariffs on UK trade unless Johnson properly implements the deal he negotiated.
The whole dispute is igniting old tensions in Northern Ireland and risks threatening the peace established by the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
What has this got to do with Joe Biden?
Biden is very proud of his Irish ancestry, while the US is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, meaning the president has a strong vested interest in the dispute being resolved.
On the eve of the president’s first ever face-to-face talks with Johnson, it emerged that a top US official issued a formal diplomatic rebuke to the UK for imperilling the Northern Ireland peace process with its stance on the protocol.
The White House then attempted to dial down the row, insisting Biden did not direct the rebuke and attempting to portray it as a normal diplomatic discussion.
But neither the US or Downing Street denied the Times’ report that America’s most senior diplomat in London, Yael Lempert, delivered a demarche – a formal protest – in a meeting with Frost on June 3.
To the delight of No.10, Biden did not comment on the issue publicly and Johnson’s official spokesperson was able to claim the pair were in “complete harmony” after their 80 minutes of talks.
So why is it threatening to overshadow the G7 summit?
Biden helped Johnson rescue the narrative by using his remarks after the meeting to focus on his pledge to donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines for 92 low and lower-middle income countries and the African Union, part of Johnson’s plan for G7 countries to provide a billion doses in an effort to end the pandemic in 2022.
But any relief in Downing Street will have been short lived, as French president Emmanuel Macron waded into the row to warn the Brexit deal cannot be renegotiated.
“I think this is not serious,” he said on the eve of the summit.
Meanwhile, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also used a pre-summit press conference to insist the protocol is the “only solution” to prevent a hard border with the Republic and must be implemented in full.
All eyes will be on that pair, as well as German president Angela Merkel, after G7 leaders gather for a “family photo” on the beach on Friday afternoon.
And the careful crafted detente with Biden could easily end if the president at any point this weekend decides to wade into the row publicly.
Can the sausage war be solved?
Both the UK and EU may have to back down from their entrenched positions if the dispute is going to be resolved.
The UK wants the EU to be more flexible and pragmatic in its application of the rules, arguing that there is little risk of substandard goods entering the single market from Britain via Northern Ireland.
But Brussels has suggested the whole of the UK could accept some EU rules in specific areas, for example on plant, animal, environment and food safety regulations, in order to reduce need for checks on the types of goods regularly traded between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Talks on the issue between Frost and his EU counterpart Sefcovic ended this week without agreement and at the moment, it is difficult to see a way through the row.