Analysis: Brexit contradictions

London, UK: The Brexit dichotomy has got worse: Trade between the UK and Europe has become more complex and expensive while that between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has got easier.

Achieving a “hard Brexit” but maintaining a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland have proved an almost intractable problem. Now, most checks between Britain and Northern Ireland are to end, primarily to allow the Northern Irish devolved Stormont government to start again, Those checks, which made the Irish Sea border real, were the pretext for the Democratic Unionist Party to walk out of Stormont.

The UK government paper published yesterday suggests that some, but not all, of the paperwork and physical checks are to be been removed. The government says there will be no “UK processes” for goods moving from NI to GB, though goods making the same journey via Dublin will need an EU customs declaration.

This is basically the same regime that previously applied to imports from the EU into the UK. Goods moving from Dublin to the United Kingdom will face the full range of new customs processes which has entailed some changes to the Windsor Framework, previously in place: the planned “green lane” is replaced with a “UK Internal Market lane” for which some 80% of freight will be eligible as long as the goods are not “at risk” of moving into Ireland, and therefore the EU. A red lane will deal with at-risk goods, and all physical “identity checks” will be focused on this route. The only physical checks on the UK market lane will come if criminality or abuse is suspected.

The UK government says it aims to eliminate all physical checks, but those for customs and animal and plant security will remain. Here, the government paper is vague on what these will entail. “The United Kingdom has also made written guarantees on biosecurity to the European Union, including that we will protect against disease risks to the island of Ireland, and we would of course always take any action needed to meet those commitments,” the paper says.

The Northern Irish border will not be paper-free as is the case with Scottish and Welsh borders with England. The command paper says this paperwork will be much less burdensome, with a “shorter, simpler dataset” of “standard commercial information” giving, ministers believe Northern Ireland a unique position with unfettered access to the UK internal market and to the EU customs union. Not so for those business elsewhere in the UK wanting to import goods from the EU which will be faced with a raft of new checks and costs from this month. Health certificates will now be required on EU goods ranging from cut flowers, to fresh produce including meat, fruit and vegetables.

The implementation of these changes has been delayed five times but the new border checks are now planned to be phased in over the next year, with physical checks starting from 30 April. This has prompted industry fears of disruption to supply chains with trucks stopped at ports to ensure they have the correct documents. Concerns remain that extra checks will see increases in import costs for businesses.

From Wednesday, the main change is the introduction of “export health certificates” on imports of “medium risk” animal products, as well as plants and plant products imported to Britain from the EU. The trade rules cover goods ranging from cut flowers, to cheese, fish and meat. This means a veterinary health check will be required in the EU on every consignment of meat, fruit and vegetable produce set to enter Britain. While not all produce will require checks, in practice importers tend to have a mixture of goods, so most consignments will do.

The British Meat Processors Association says it is far from certain the new measures “won’t cause disruption in the supply and a hike in the cost of some of our meat staples”. It also warns of a lack of veterinary capacity among EU exporting countries, and that some EU vets might not be prepared to sign the health certificates needed to be able to export meat, due to requirements diverging since Brexit. “Put bluntly, if the vets aren’t able to sign off the documentation, consignments of meat may not even leave the factory, let alone get to a UK Border Control Post,” the BMPA said.

The government admits extra red tape and checks will increase food prices, but says not as much as seen in recent times.

William Bain, head of trade policy, British Chambers of Commerce, said there were still unanswered questions around the plans. “The government still hasn’t said what will happen if goods coming into the UK don’t have the paperwork they need. Will they be stopped from entering or will they be followed up afterwards? This could lead to hold-ups with deliveries if it’s not handled properly,” he said.