Overall Irish meat and livestock exports were worth €3.7 billion in 2015, according to the Irish Food Board (Bord Bía). And as the only country with a land border with the UK, a possible Brexit would be a “significant threat” for Irish agriculture and, in particular, for the meats sector, said Rowena Dwyer, chief economist at the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA).
Britain is the most important market for Irish farmers and takes in 40% of their total agricultural output. The proportion for meats is even higher. According to the food board, 54% of Irish beef production or 272,000 tonnes (t) in 2015 were destined for the UK. “There are over 90,000 farm enterprises involved in beef production. Not only do more than half of their beef exports go to the UK, almost 60% of pig meat exports are also destined for the UK market,” said Dwyer.
A recent report ‘Scoping the Possible Economic Implications of Brexit on Ireland’ authored by The Economic and Social Research Institute Ireland (ESRI), suggested that, in the case of the UK leaving the EU, bilateral trade flows could reduce by as much as 20%. Based on the UK-Ireland agricultural trade in 2014 of €10.5bn, the loss would be almost €1bn. The impact on the Irish side would be particularly severe: while boneless beef imports to the UK from Ireland accounted for just 3.9% of total imports of this product to the UK in 2015, this constituted 43.9% of chilled boneless beef exports from Ireland, according to the ESRI.
Meat exports rise
According to the Irish Food Board, this threat comes just as Ireland’s exports have been increasing after a lull. The value of meat and livestock exports grew by 2% in 2015 year-on-year, accounting for 34% of total Irish food and drink exports. The value of Irish beef exports stood at €2.41bn in 2015, while Irish pig meat exports were marginally lower at an estimated €570m, with increased volumes offset by a 10% drop in average pig prices. For sheep meat, a 2% increase in exports coupled with a 2% rise in lamb prices led to Irish sheep meat exports jumping by 5% by value reaching €230m.
After a possible Brexit, the UK might introduce tariffs or other restrictions in addition to other new non-tariff barriers such as Customs controls, warn the experts from ESRI. Alan Matthews, professor of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin, estimated that the additional costs of doing business with the UK might total 5%. “The reintroduction of these barriers would reduce the competitiveness of Irish exports and, ultimately, reduce the potential of the UK as a destination for Irish agri-food exports,” said Dwyer.
Ireland ‘under pressure’
Also, with a shared land border, there is a significant need for all-island cooperation and co-ordination on animal health issues. “The risks to animal health would increase if, over time, different regulatory regimes were pursued by Ireland and the UK,” said Dwyer.
A further consideration is what global trade deals the UK might enter into, freed from wider EU interests. For example, the UK might remove trade barriers from what are now ‘third countries’ on agricultural products, which would impact on Irish exports to the UK, said the experts from ESRI. “This would result in additional competition in the UK market, which is likely to put Irish exporters under pressure.”