Two weeks ago, a digger that had been working on a job on the British mainland arrived back in Northern Ireland. Or rather attempted to arrive. Its bodywork was covered in soil, the inspector pointed out. British soil wasn’t allowed into the EU.
The driver explained that it was a company digger and was not being exported.
It didn’t matter, the inspector said, the soil needed to be washed off. The driver eventually complied. ‘Sorry,’ the official said, ‘there’s still some under the cab. That needs to be washed off as well.’
The only thing starker than the level of bureaucratic pedantry is the symbolism. As a result of petty EU officialdom, British soil is no longer allowed on British soil.
Two weeks ago, a digger that had been working on a job on the British mainland arrived back in Northern Ireland. Or rather attempted to arrive. Its bodywork was covered in soil, the inspector pointed out. British soil wasn’t allowed into the EU (stock image)
So now the finger-pointing has begun. Some EU officials have placed the blame for the growing crisis over the Irish Sea border squarely on Brexit. They claim the delicate balance secured by the Anglo-Irish Agreement was always going to be disrupted by the earthquake of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Others – in particular the Remainers – have highlighted the video of Boris Johnson reassuring Unionists ‘there will not be checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that will not be going on to Ireland’. His duplicity is at the heart of this breakdown of trust, they claim.
And on one level they’re right. Northern Ireland was always the Achilles heel of the Brexit project. Boris has indeed turned his back on his former partners in the DUP.
But to look for the real culprits behind the mayhem of the past fortnight, we need to look slightly further afield. In particular to the monolith that is the EU headquarters on the Rue de la Loi in Brussels.
The only thing starker than the level of bureaucratic pedantry is the symbolism. As a result of petty EU officialdom, British soil is no longer allowed on British soil (stock image)
When you observe Boris’s comments on the implementation of the deal he struck with Irish premier Leo Varadkar, one thing is clear. He believed the EU would implement it in good faith. That it would be used as a shield to protect the EU single market, not a club to give Britain a punishment beating.
He also thought that in the eyes of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her colleagues, the Brexit question had finally been resolved. That whatever their differences, they accepted the new political settlement. And crucially, they recognised the practical role it had to play in maintaining a peaceful status quo on the ground in Northern Ireland.
He was wrong on both counts. Today, as a direct result of EU intervention, the peace brokered in 1998 has been placed in real jeopardy.
It was reported last week that some inspectors had been withdrawn from their customs posts following the daubing of hostile graffiti. British Government officials claim this was just a precaution. But according to Unionist sources, that graffiti had begun to appear close to the inspectors’ own homes. On Tuesday a group of 40 masked men began ‘patrolling’ the streets of East Belfast. A DUP source told me: ‘Tension is rising.’
French President Emmanuel Macron (pictured) went full-on anti-vaxxer, and falsely claimed UK vaccines were ineffective on over-65s. Finally, the nuclear button of Article 16 was pressed
It was against this backdrop that EU officials decided – with only 30 minutes’ notice to its member states, including the Irish Republic – to announce the triggering of Article 16, and the suspension of the export of vaccine supplies and other goods from the EU. And effectively pour petrol on the embers smouldering within the Unionist community.
There are two rationales for what happened last week. One is the EU blundered. The other is they engaged in a deliberate act of provocation against the United Kingdom.
EU officials I spoke to insist it was the former. They say Article 16 was triggered in error, without a proper understanding of the consequences, and the decision was withdrawn a mere five hours later.
Which in some ways is an even more terrifying proposition than the latter explanation. Until 12 months ago, Northern Ireland was part of the EU. The Irish Republic still is. If senior officials are genuinely unaware of the sensitivities relating to the border between the two territories, then they have no business running a Brussels oyster stall, never mind a political and economic union of 450 million people.
When you observe Boris’s comments on the implementation of the deal he struck with Irish premier Leo Varadkar (pictured), one thing is clear. He believed the EU would implement it in good faith
But the reality is that explanation is simply not credible. The Northern Ireland issue was at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. The crucial breakthrough was secured after bilateral talks between the heads of the UK and Irish governments. The decision to agree to a customs border down the Irish Sea was the biggest single concession Britain made during the entire negotiating period.
The truth is that over the past couple of weeks, the EU has had the equivalent of a diplomatic nervous breakdown. The optics of Brexit, coupled with the Covid second wave, the speed of the UK vaccine rollout and the chaos of the EU’s own vaccination efforts have driven its senior officials to breaking point. And resulted in them embarking on a campaign of asymmetric warfare on Britain.
There was the attempt to bully AstraZeneca into prioritising EU vaccine delivery. EU officials began sabre-rattling over a ‘vaccine war’. French President Emmanuel Macron went full-on anti-vaxxer, and falsely claimed UK vaccines were ineffective on over-65s. Finally, the nuclear button of Article 16 was pressed.
The EU’s defenders – in particular the beleaguered army of Remainers – have attempted to downplay these acts of sustained aggression. It was all a minor overreaction, they claimed. The triggering of Article 16 was an oversight and quickly rectified.
There are two rationales for what happened last week. One is the EU blundered. The other is they engaged in a deliberate act of provocation against the United Kingdom
It was not. Had the EU been successful in diverting vaccines destined for the UK to its member states, people here would have died. If the attempt of EU officials to cast doubts on the UK vaccine licensing process had succeeded, people here would have died. If Macron’s anti-vax propaganda had been believed by Britain’s over-65s, many of them would have died. And if the tensions in Northern Ireland really do become inflamed, a lot of people could die.
The EU – and their cheerleaders – need to face up to their responsibilities. And they need to do it fast.
First, they must put away the petrol can. A lot of attention has been paid to the supposedly swift withdrawal of Article 16. But much less to the statement that accompanied it. ‘Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal,’ it warned. As one DUP official said to me: ‘They’re saying it was an accident. But they’re threatening to do it again.’
Secondly they have to start honouring the spirit, not the letter of the law, of the Northern Ireland customs agreement.
Northern Ireland was always the Achilles heel of the Brexit project. Boris (pictured) has indeed turned his back on his former partners in the DUP
Diggers for British building sites. Pets for British homes. Medical supplies for British patients. Seeds for British gardens. These goods that are clearly not destined for onward shipment to the EU have to be given safe and swift transit, not become enmeshed in a web of EU red tape.
And finally the EU have to understand this. The war is over. Brexit is done. Britain must be left in peace to flourish outside the EU. Just as the EU must be left in peace to flourish without her.
Yes, there will be moments when we will want to boast of our triumphs. And moments the EU and its member states will want to boast of theirs. But attempting to stick a finger in each other’s eye just to prove how right, or wrong each side was to leave or stay, is a fool’s game. The EU bureaucrats must step back and let British soil fall on British soil. Better that than British, and European, blood.