Addressing an issue that has been given crucial importance in the Brexit process, London wants to achieve an arrangement that requires “no physical infrastructure” separating the land border between the two countries.
Unveiling the proposals, David Davis, UK Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, explained that it is a priority to “ensure the land border is as seamless as possible for people and businesses”.
This could include an absence of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks for agri-food products, the UK government suggested yesterday. London wants to “prioritise in particular” ways that this could be achieved as it enters the next round of negotiations in August.
“EU law stipulates a range of controls and checks for third country agri-food products in situations where the EU does not have a sufficiently deep trade relationship with the relevant country. While the UK would have greater flexibility in relation to designing our own approach to SPS checks, the Irish side of the land border would continue to be subject to relevant EU regulations. An agreed, reciprocal solution is therefore required,” the government said in the second of two position papers published this week.
The “extent and complexity” of third country SPS and related checks would “clearly not be appropriate” or consistent with the “shared objectives” to avoid a hard border, the UK government argued.
The UK said it would tackle the issue with a “flexible and imaginative approach” and suggested "regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures" could negate the need for checks at the Irish border.
James Brokenshire, UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said the proposal "demonstrates our desire to find a practical solution that recognises the unique economic, social and cultural context of the land border with Ireland, without creating any new obstacles to trade within the UK".
In its earlier position paper, the UK set out its priorities for a customs union with the wider bloc. London suggested two models. The first, a “highly streamlined customs arrangement", would maintain some of the structures currently in place and use "technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures". The second approach, which London admitted is “untested", would see the UK "align” its customs measures “in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border".
Ireland is the number one export destination for the UK food and drink sector. According to figures from the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF), nearly a fifth of UK food and drink exports are to Ireland. This trade was worth around £1.8bn (€2bn) in the first six months of this year.
Likewise, the UK is the largest export market for the Irish food and drink sector. In total, 40% of Irish food and drink exports are bound for the UK. This accounts for trade valued at around €4.4bn annually.
A hard border between the two countries has the potential to limit market access and damage trade. However, the FDF’s director general Ian Wright was quick to stress that the implications go well beyond economic considerations. “The stakes are high: the peace and prosperity of the citizens of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland hang in the balance,” he said.
“We are pleased the government's paper acknowledges the enormous practical challenges facing us in food and drink,” Wright continued.
“Of course, these proposals can only become reality when they are agreed with the EU27. We, therefore, urge the UK and EU negotiating teams to swiftly agree practical solutions which provide business with certainty around the future of the seamless and highly valuable market in food and drink that exists between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland."
EU hails progress but Ireland skeptical
The European Union – which has itself published nine papers detailing its Brexit stance - also welcomed the publication of the position papers, which it said it will now “carefully study”.
A spokesperson said this was a “positive step” to “starting phase one” of the negotiations but noted “the clock is ticking” on the Brexit process, which must be completed by March 2019.
In contrast, addressing reporters at Iveagh House, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney expressed some trepidation that an 'invisible' border was achievable.
"From an agri-food point of view, how that could be possible? I just don't see how it could work,” he said. "If you look at the dairy industry, for example, milk powders go into yogurts, cheeses, butters, liquid milk and they end up across multiple markets.”
This concern was echoed by the Irish Farmers’ Association, who said that while the principle of avoiding border checks was “positive” it was “very difficult to see” how the proposal could be implemented.
IFA president Joe Healy noted: “Cross border trade in agricultural produce encompasses crucial issues such as food safety and animal health. If the UK insists on pursuing its own free trade agreements, two divergent regimes would have to operate on the island and it is impossible to see how border checks could be avoided. The UK will have to compromise on their future trade ambitions with third countries in the area of agricultural and food products.”
Healy said “low-cost food imports” into the UK would “undermine” the value of the market and could prove “devastating” to the Irish food sector. He called on EU negotiators to push for a “balanced” free trade agreement with the UK that would provide tariff-free access for agriculture and food products; maintain equivalent standards on food safety, animal health, welfare and the environment; and apply the Common External Tariff for agricultural and food imports to both the EU and UK.