Richard North, 13/04/2021  

There is a limit to the number of times I can write about the same things, even if they concern the all-absorbing issue of Brexit. One of those which keeps popping up is the idea of a "veterinary deal" to ease the passage of foods of animal origin into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and presumably into EU Member States.

Yesterday, we saw it here in the Guardian, with an unsourced piece from "Brexit correspondent" Lisa O'Carroll telling us that the UK is edging towards a new deal with the EU on Brexit arrangements.

Mirroring a piece on the RTE website, we are told that this "deal" has the potential for easing border checks on certain goods, to which effect unnamed officials in London and Brussels have been involved in intense "technical talks" in the past two weeks over the future checks on food, plants and parcels going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Undoubtedly, there is something going on here. I've been seeing such vague references for some weeks, alongside the strange disappearance of any news about the infringement proceedings that the EU is supposed to be pursuing against the UK government.

But while detail is completely lacking – on an issue where detail is everything - O'Carrol manages to tell us that Downing Street's official spokesman said the discussions had been constructive but that there were "still significant differences that need to be resolved".

This was the sort of phrasing – or something very much like it – that we were getting through the latter stages of the negotiations on what eventually became the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which left unresolved precisely those issues which seem to be being discussed now, and probably for much the same reasons.

Meanwhile, says O'Carroll, there have been suggestions that the border checks could be significantly eased if the UK adopted an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade. However, she adds, "industry insiders" say this would not address loyalist concerns as it still requires paperwork.

We know the sort of "insiders" who have been pushing this idea – mainly representatives of trade associations who failed to see coming the impact of Brexit on food industries and who are now thrashing around with increasing desperation, looking for a way out for their beleaguered members.

But, as an illustration for how easily the technical language becomes debased, we only have to look at O'Carroll's latest offering. Although she writes about an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade, all she is doing is pocking multiple errors into a single sentence.

There is, for instance, no common agreement operating for Australia and New Zealand. There is a special agreement for New Zealand, but this does not include Australia. And neither does it cover the "agrifood trade", as such – merely a limited range of products of animal origin.

It is here that I've lost track of the number of times I've written about the New Zealand agreement, most recently here and here. but it must be clear to anyone who has read the raft of documentation and, in particular, the 2015 amendment that this is not an easy option.

In prosaic terms, one must appreciate that the New Zealand economy depends to a great extent on its meat and dairy exports and has thus geared its industries towards meeting the disparate regulatory requirements of its customers.

In the UK, export is ancillary to servicing the domestic market and it would hardly be possible to cope with the specific controls which are imposed on third countries. It simply would not be economically practical.

To that effect, there is a glimm4er of understanding from Peter Hardwick from the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) – but only a glimmer.

This can be seen from his discussion of "new-found trade friction" between the UK and the EU which, he says, explains the declining level of red meat exports from the UK.

At last the industry seems to have come to terms with the fact that many of the controls traders are encountering are systemic and will lead to a longer term, possibly permanent, loss of trade with the EU.

Even the most optimistic exporters, we are told, are talking about 15 percent, and most around the 25 percent mark as an estimate as to what this long-term loss of trade might be. Some fear this is much higher.

There are three key factors, Hardwick writes: cost, time and the loss of groupage. The loss of groupage, he says, has had a massive effect and, broadly, the costs of exporting have doubled in most cases. Increased costs include the costs of certification, customs procedures and clearance and the corresponding charges from agents and increased charges from hauliers.

In the case of the latter, as hauliers have to factor in waiting times at BCPs they are charging for this at £45 to £55 per hour. Some don't even want the work because of the uncertainty. Importing customers are also facing import customs charges ranging from €250 to €500 per load, and many are finding this a major disincentive to importing from GB.

End to end, the additional time required for EHC processes, customs processes, border delays and waiting times is adding a good 24 hours to delivery times, often more and this affects freshness and shelf-life which are critical in a fast-moving fresh trade.

Finally, he concedes, groupage trade has effectively ceased. Within a few days of the end of the Transition Period hauliers, understandably, withdrew from offering groupage for products of animal origin.

This is not just about the complexities of certifying multiple consignments and sealing vehicles but about the commercial risk of an entire truckload being turned back because one pallet is rejected.

The effect on trade, Hardwick argues, is disproportionate, because consignments are often very high value, low volume products. Sending chilled meat using groupage, he states, is no longer an option. But there again, we see the refrain that there needs to be a more comprehensive SPS agreement between EU and UK "that markedly reduces the regulatory burden and facilitates trade".

Well, there is scope for reducing the regulatory burden, not least if both parties develop electronic certification systems. But, as the New Zealand agreement indicates, this requires a secure link enabling data transfer between the respective systems. And, as electronic certification provides equivalent guarantees to paper based certification, the Parties have to agree a legally watertight legal mechanism to enable this to happen.

One of these days, I suppose, the pundits will actually read the New Zealand documentation, and perhaps talk to some established third country exporters to see what the system entails, instead of building castles in the air, based on unrealisable hopes.

And even then, when the chips are down, any aspirants for an easier life must understand that any concessions which the EU gives the UK cannot go further than is on offer to other third countries, where similar conditions apply, without breaching WTO trade discrimination rules.

However, so entrenched is the wishful thinking in the system – compounded by the staggering ignorance in the political and media domains – that I am not at all confident that we are about to see an outbreak of realism.

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