Some good Brexit news eases fears for the Irish food sector

7

Boris Johnson’s government will delay checks on EU goods entering the UK until mid-2022, but UK goods going into the EU will be fully checked.

The development is a huge boost to Irish food exporters and the national agri-food industry, given the Ireland-UK food import/export balance worth €1.1bn per year to this country. The latest London government decision eases the threat of the loss of tens of thousands of Irish food industry jobs.

The move will delay a demand on Irish exporters to the UK for more “paperwork” from October 1 until January at least.

Since so many Irish livelihoods hang on the outcome of this Brexit mess, nobody wants to be too triumphal, but it’s hard to avoid noting that the UK’s demand for a divorce from the European Union was supposedly about “taking back control” – and for now at least they’re doing exactly the opposite.

On a more positive Irish note, for the first time since British voters’ June 2016 Leave decision, there is a welcome sign of a thaw in Brussels-London relations. The public “guff war” continues, but actions on the ground suggest both sides are looking for a more pragmatic outcome.

This major delay to the UK’s border control regime emerged quietly in a written reply to a parliamentary question by Brexit Minister David Frost on a news day dominated by Covid-19 issues.

“We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border,” Mr Frost said.

He added that the new timetable for border checks was “pragmatic”.

Mr Frost said the delay to checks, which will particularly affect food and agricultural products, was in response to the supply chain problems, which he blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic.

British government critics have argued that Brexit has added to the pandemic problems, especially the labour shortage in Britain. The British Labour Party said the delays on border controls were mainly due to the London government’s inability to tackle Brexit supply chain problems.

Some Brussels diplomats said Britain’s border control regime is not yet fully ready for a new post-Brexit import-export system, but Mr Frost insisted his government was “on track” to deliver the new systems required.

Under his proposals, customs declarations and controls will be introduced on January 1, but safety and security declarations will not apply until July 1.

The delay in applying import controls on EU food exports – including those from Ireland – appears designed to ensure there will be no obstacles to getting Christmas goods into British shops.

New requirements for export health certificates, which were due to be introduced on October 1, will now be introduced on July 1. That’s 18 months after Brexit took full effect at the start of this year.

However, there was some annoyance in the UK food industry, where companies that had invested heavily for an earlier and more serious regime again accused London of “moving the goalposts” without much forewarning.

Yet there are other signs of “damage limitation” from both the EU and UK. Brussels earlier this summer quietly extended “grace periods” for tighter checks on goods going into Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales.

When the UK decided to further extend the imposition of such tighter checks beyond October, Brussels quietly indicated it could live with that one.

The longer such delays persist, the more hopes will grow that a more lasting compromise can emerge. It’s all still about damage limitation.