Meat and milk checks at heart of no-deal Brexit's twin crises

19 Feb 2019 12:34 pm

If Britons wake up to a no-deal Brexit on Saturday March 30, the UK government risks being engulfed by twin crises that both sides’ contingency planning has failed to cover.

One is the question of checks on trade at the Northern Irish border, and the risk to the peace settlement. The other is the introduction of checks on UK trade at English Channel ports, which has the potential to halt the free flow of cross-border freight and disrupt the supply of food, medicines and machinery to the UK.

The common link, and the key to ameliorating the looming crisis, is the UK’s status under the EU’s rulebook for the export of animal and plant products.

In order to export animal products into the EU, a country and its individual meat sectors must first secure a listing as a “third country” following an assessment of the adequacy of its laws and food agencies.

No such listing yet exists for the UK, which would result in the default position of no exports of food to the EU whatsoever in a no-deal scenario, and worse market access than the likes of Sudan, Venezuela or Cuba.

In addition, it would be open to the EU to decide the intensity of physical and documentary checks on animal produce from the UK. Under EU law, this defaults to a high level — 100 percent on live animals or 50 percent on fresh fish.

These can be reduced but not eliminated by further agreements, of the type struck between the EU and countries such as New Zealand and Canada. In the case of full adherence to the rules of the EU's single market, they can be jettisoned entirely.

Panic

While the EU has announced emergency measures to keep basic ties in areas such as rail, road and aviation — in effect, unilaterally recognizing the adequacy of the UK’s rulebooks in these areas — no such steps have been taken over food exports.

That has led the UK to downgrade its scenarios for what happens on the Dover-Calais freight artery, which currently sees high-volume, fluid freight transport by ferry. It is assuming a no-deal will lead to “significantly reduced access across the short straits, for up to six months,” hitting both imports and exports.

In an address to the National Farmers Union, Agriculture Secretary Michael Gove laid bare the government’s underlying sense of panic at the lack of a third-country listing. “That means as I speak that there is no absolute guarantee that we would be able to continue to export food to the EU,” he said.

He added that so far, no border inspection facilities to screen meat had even been built at Calais. “The requirement for checks will inevitably slow the processing of exports, and for every lorry that is delayed at Calais there is a knock-on effect for other haulage and the rapid turn-around of roll-on roll-off ferries,” he said.

“We can expect, at least in the short term, that those delays in Calais will impede the loading of ferries, constricting supply routes back into Britain and furring up the arteries of commerce on which we all rely.”

Irish question

Yet in such a scenario, with the UK government under intense pressure to see that supermarkets are stocked with fresh vegetables, coffee and cat food from the continent, the EU will have its own demands.

In a no-deal scenario, the European Commission will move swiftly to push the UK to uphold much of the content of the divorce treaty, including a financial settlement of tens of billions of pounds and the provisions of the Irish backstop.

Leaving without a deal will only “magnify” the challenge facing the UK to uphold its commitments to avoiding a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, said Stefaan De Rynck, an advisor to Michel Barnier, in remarks to a think tank last night.

The most difficult of these are checks on plants and livestock, which, unlike customs declarations, cannot be conducted remotely and require intensive monitoring to prevent disease outbreaks or risk to consumers.

The UK has recognized that Brexit shouldn’t mean new checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Ireland and the rest of the EU, De Rynck said, and there will be “strong solidarity” among other states on this point.

Equally, it makes sense to continue to treat the whole island of Ireland as a single epidemiological unit, with common rules and enforcement on animal health.

This all leads to replication of the existing Irish backstop proposal — “the best we came up with, turning every stone,” according to De Rynck — which envisages plant and animal checks taking place on crossings between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

These are opposed by some unionist lawmakers on the grounds they introduce barriers within the UK’s internal market. But the process of granting the UK’s listing will inexorably drive towards this conclusion.

“That comes with a whole process of checks, equivalent standards, guarantees, all the rest of it," said De Rynck. "You can easily see where the story goes in this context — how does this work, where do the checks take place?”

Illusions

The imminent collision of these two crises has gone largely unnoticed in Westminster.

Advocates of a no-deal exit in the Conservative party have contended that if it happens, commercial incentives would drive the EU to maintain the free-flow of goods at Dover, and adopt contingency measures similar to those already put forward in aviation and rail.

Similarly, it’s been suggested, aborting the Article 50 divorce process would allow the UK to address the Irish border challenge on an “equal footing” with the EU and dump the backstop package.

In other words, it is argued that the commission would jettison both its principal demand and its leverage.

Not so, said De Rynck. “You will have to find an accommodation with the EU, because you are leaving the EU but you are not leaving Europe.”

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