The “sausage war” row between the UK and EU deepened today as the Elysee Palace rejected claims that Emmanuel Macron confused the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in a conversation with Boris Johnson at the G7 summit in Cornwall.
Reports today suggested that the supposed blunder was the trigger for Mr Johnson’s outburst that EU leaders had to “get into their heads” the importance of the territorial integrity of the UK.
But the French president’s office today said that Macron had merely been pointing out that mainland Britain and Northern Ireland were on two different islands, after Mr Johnson asked him whether he would accept a ban on movements of sausages between Toulouse and Paris.
Downing Street today declined to discuss details of the conversation, but foreign secretary Dominic Raab appeared to confirm accounts of the spat, saying that he had heard similar comments from EU leaders and branding them “offensive”.
He risked further inflaming tensions with European capitals by suggesting that EU leaders were trying to change Northern Ireland’s status against the wishes of its people, and saying that Mr Macron’s reported comments were comparable to describing Catalonia as not part of Spain or Corsica not part of France.
A French diplomatic source said the UK government was trying to distract away from the real issues of the G7 with the sausage row.
Mr Johnson yesterday threatened to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol which forms part of his Brexit deal, after the EU insisted that the UK must apply provisions negotiated and agreed by the prime minister in 2019 which will ban the movement of chilled meats between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
Britain is not alleging any breach of the protocol by the EU, but claims Brussels is being too “purist” in the application of the rules which Mr Johnson signed up to.
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin warned against a unilateral UK extension of a “grace period” during which the rules are not observed, telling Sky News: “Consistent, unilateral deviation from that agreement... clearly undermines the broader relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom”.
In a tetchy early-morning exchange with Mr Macron in Cornwall on Saturday, Mr Johnson is said to have asked: “How would you like it if the French courts stopped you moving Toulouse sausages to Paris?”
A UK government source is reported to have said the French president replied that it was “not a good comparison because Paris and Toulouse are part of the same country”, sparking the furious reply from Mr Johnson that: “Northern Ireland and Britain are part of the same country as well.”
In a later interview, the prime minister said EU leaders “seem to misunderstand that the UK is a single country, a single territory. I just need to get that into their heads”.
But the Macron’s office on Sunday disputed this account of the premier’s exchange.
“The president said that Toulouse and Paris were part of a single geographic area and that Northern Ireland was on an island,” said the Elysee.
“The president wants to highlight that the situation was quite different and that it wasn’t right to draw this kind of comparison.
“He reminded (Mr Johnson) that the UK’s exit from the EU was a British decision and that it was necessary to stick to the word given. The president then steered the conversation back to the key issues of the G7.”
The impending ban on movements of chilled meats, due to take effect from 1 July, stems from strict EU rules to protect the quality and safety of food products circulating within the single market. Mr Johnson’s decision to place a customs border in the Irish Sea as part of his Brexit deal means that the protections apply to Northern Ireland.
London is resisting an EU proposal to get round the issue by agreeing to align regulations on animal hygiene, because it fears this may get in the way of future trade deals with countries like the US. It instead proposes that the EU accept that standards in the UK are broadly equivalent to those in the single market.
Asked about the row, Mr Raab told Sky News: “What we cannot have is the continuing disruption of trade and effectively, trying to change the status of Northern Ireland country to the wishes or the consent of the people.”
He added: “We have serially seen senior EU figures talk about Northern Ireland as if it was some kind of different country to the UK. It is not only offensive, it has real-world effects on the communities in Northern Ireland, creates great concern, great consternation.
“Could you imagine if we talked about Catalonia, the Flemish part of Belgium, one of the Länder in Germany, northern Italy, Corsica in France as different countries. We need a bit of respect here.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson was unable to point to any instance of similar comments being made to Mr Raab during the G7 conference, when EU leaders have mounted a united front in demanding the application of Mr Johnson’s protocol in full.
“The point the foreign secretary was making is that he has heard views as reported this morning put to him previously,” said the spokesperson.
The spokesperson added: “I think the people of the UK would want us to continually emphasise that that is not the correct way to view Northern Ireland. This is a single, united country.”
Despite their differences over the protocol, Downing Street insisted relations between Mr Johnson and Mr Macron were cordial.
“Their relationship continues to be constructive,” said the spokesperson. “You have seen images from the barbecue last night where they were having conversations on the beach. It is obviously in the UK’s interest to continue to work constructively with France and that’s what we want to achieve.”