DELICATE ISSUE:
The EU-UK schism has crystalized in a worsening fight over Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU nation

It was late on Christmas Eve last year when the EU and UK finally clinched a Brexit trade deal after years of wrangling, threats and missed deadlines to seal their divorce.

There was hope that the now-separated UK and the 27-nation bloc would sail their relationship toward calmer waters. No chance.

Such was the bile and bad blood stirred up by the diplomatic brinkmanship and bitter divorce that, two months from another Christmas, insults of treachery and duplicitousness are flying again.

“It was written in the stars from the start,” professor Hendrik Vos of Ghent University said. “There were a lot of loose ends. Several issues that would invariably lead to problems, like fisheries and trade in Northern Ireland.”

It was the economically minute, but symbolically charged subject of fish that held up a trade deal to the last minute, and fishing is also providing a wedge of division now.

France this week is rallying its EU partners for a joint stance and action if necessary if London does not grant more licenses to small French fishing boats that roam close to the UK crown dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey that hug France’s Normandy coast.

In parliament last week, French Prime Minister Jean Castex accused the UK of reneging on its promise over fishing.

“We see in the clearest way possible that Great Britain does not respect its own signature,” Castex said, adding that “all we want is that a given word is respected.”

In a relationship where both sides often fall back on cliches about the other, Castex was harking back to the centuries-old French insult of “Perfidious Albion,” a nation that can never be trusted.

Across the English Channel, Brexit supporters and the media often depict a conniving EU, deeply hurt by the UK’s decision to leave and doing its utmost to make Brexit less than a success by throwing up bureaucratic impediments.

The schism has crystalized in the worsening fight over Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU nation.

Under the most delicate and contentious part of the Brexit deal, Northern Ireland remains inside the EU’s single market for trade in goods, to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland.

That means customs and border checks must be conducted on some goods going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, despite the fact they are part of the same kingdom.

The regulations are intended to prevent goods from the UK entering the EU’s tariff-free single market, while keeping an open border on the island of Ireland — a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

The British government soon complained that the arrangements were not working. It said the rules and restrictions impose burdensome red tape on businesses.

Never short of a belligerent metaphor, this year has already brought a “sausage war,” with the UK asking the EU to drop a ban on processed British meat products, such as sausages, entering Northern Ireland.

The UK accuses the EU of being needlessly “purist” in implementing the agreement, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, and says it requires major changes to work.

The EU has agreed to look at changes and is due to present proposals today, but before that move, the UK raised the stakes again, demanding even more sweeping changes to the jointly negotiated deal.

In a speech in Lisbon yesterday, British Minister for EU Relations David Frost was to say that the EU must also remove the European Court of Justice as the ultimate arbiter of disputes concerning trade in Northern Ireland.

That is a demand the EU is highly unlikely to agree to.

The EU’s highest court is seen as the pinnacle of the single market and Brussels has vowed not to undermine its own order.

“No one should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation,” Frost was to say in Lisbon, urging the EU to “show ambition and willingness to tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol head on.”

Frost was to say that if there is no resolution soon, the UK would invoke a clause that lets either side suspend the agreement in exceptional circumstances. That would send already testy relations into a deep chill, and could lead to a trade dispute between the UK and EU — one that would hurt the UK economy more than its much larger neighbor.

Some EU observers say the UK’s demand to remove the court’s oversight shows it is not serious about making the Brexit deal work.

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney accused the UK of “shifting the playing field” and dismissing EU proposals without seeing them.

“This is being seen across the European Union as the same pattern over and over again — the EU tries to solve problems, the UK dismisses the solutions before they’re even published and asks for more,” Coveney said.

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