The demands follow the publication by the European Commission on Wednesday (28 February) of a 120-page draft Brexit withdrawal agreement by the European Commission, which spelled out plans for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU’s customs union after 31 December 2020. This would be the case, even if the rest of the UK left the EU customs union, after ceasing to be a full member of the EU.
Such an arrangement would effectively create a hard customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, affecting the significant volume of meat and dairy products traded across the Irish Sea.
The Commission’s proposals were immediately rejected by UK Prime Minister Theresa May – a view that has been echoed within the meat industry.
A spokesperson for the UK-based International Meat Trade Association (IMTA) told GlobalMeatNews that its chief objective of maintaining free trade in meat products was unaltered in light of yesterday’s announcement. “Although it is welcome that solutions are being proposed and debated, IMTA has the very strong view that the whole of the UK must be able to continue to trade without friction or the imposition of tariffs in either direction with the EU,” it said.
The association was also damning of the Commission’s proposals that would see EU sanitary and phytosanitary controls applied to meat and dairy products traded between the UK and Northern Ireland.
“Any outcome of Brexit that sees veterinary checks required when exporting to or importing from the EU-27 would be very harmful to the meat sector, which already operates on relatively slim margins,” said IMTA. “Fresh meat, particularly pork and poultry, has a limited shelf-life, so any delays, or even the potential for delays, at borders would be problematic for trade in this product.”
The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) has also criticised the Commission’s draft agreement. However, it pointed out that the real culprit was the British government, which has made leaving the customs union a “red line” in Brexit negotiations. This would create a hard border somewhere – either across the Irish Sea, or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“The Irish government has to maintain its focus on the relationship between the EU and the entirety of the UK, and the need for the UK to maintain full regulatory alignment with the EU in the area of agriculture and food,” Joe Healy, the IFA’s president, said on Twitter.
Food and drink associations in the UK and Ireland have both warned that a hard border between the two nations will have a negative impact on food trade and have rejected suggestions proposed to date, including “technical solutions” to facilitate customs checks.