The UK has a unique opportunity to show how it can lead on immigration policy.
Growing tensions between Britain and the European Union threatened to overshadow the G7 summit’s conclusion on Sunday, with London accusing France of “offensive” remarks that Northern Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom.
Ever since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, the two sides have been trying to work out how to deal with post-Brexit trade and the British province, which has a land border with EU member Ireland.
Ultimately, the talks keep coming back to the delicate patchwork of history, nationalism, religion and geography that intertwine in Northern Ireland, but the latest spat over the Brexit divorce deal is centred on sausages.
Both sides have accused the other of sowing disharmony at the G7 summit.
Brussels is angered at London’s refusal to implement checks on goods heading into Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales.
Talks broke down earlier this week, and the EU is threatening retaliation if Britain unilaterally extends a grace period for trade in chilled meat, including sausages, next month.
The issue was raised again when Prime Minister Boris Johnson met French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on the sidelines of the G7 summit on Saturday.
Johnson asked the French leader to imagine if Toulouse sausages were barred from sale in Paris, which left Macron “astonished”, according to a source in the president’s office.
“He … told him Toulouse is part of the same territory, which is not the case for Northern Ireland” because it is separated from Great Britain by the Irish Sea, the source said.
“These are different geographical configurations and we are comparing things that are absolutely not comparable.”
British media reported that Macron responded by inaccurately saying Northern Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom, remarks British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab described as “offensive”.
Johnson was furious, according to the Sunday Times. “Northern Ireland and Britain are part of the same country,” he reportedly told Macron.
The testy bilateral exchange explains Johnson’s comments on Saturday that “some of our friends … do seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory.
“I think they just need to get that into their heads,” he told Sky News, threatening to suspend the Brexit trading arrangements if the situation is not resolved.
Macron made a plea for calm on all sides at his end-of-summit news conference Sunday. “We’re not going to have a row about this every day,” he said.
“France never called into question British sovereignty, the integrity of British territory and respect for that sovereignty,” he added.
Johnson also played down the row in his closing remarks, although he restated his pledge to do “whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK” and said he repeatedly told European leaders the UK was “indivisible”.