Boris Johnson’s suggestion may yet fly with Ireland and the EU. But how would it work?

With Brexit pushing parliamentary procedure and MPs to their limits, we saw parliament prorogued this week amid extraordinary scenes. But amid the frenetic activity came an idea from PM Boris Johnson that presented a shift away from the ‘do or die’ no-deal mindset we have seen from him thus far: a common food zone on the island of Ireland to replace the much-maligned backstop.

Johnson declined to elaborate on detail, but his suggestion did spark interest and debate. So, how would such a common food zone work? And is it a viable solution to the problem posed by the backstop?

Food and livestock currently moves seamlessly between Ireland and Great Britain, with only minimal animal health checks in place to uphold Ireland’s status as a ‘single epidemiological unit’, says the NFU’s EU exit and international trade advisor Tom Keen.

These inspections are designed to keep animal disease out of the Irish landmass and could form the basis for an ‘all-Ireland food zone’, he suggests. “It’s not impossible. What [the island of Ireland’s status] means in practice is that when live animals cross the Irish Sea to Great Britain they have to go via a marshalling point to check that everything is in line. So, they are already inspected.

“The system has its roots in achieving political objectives [via the Good Friday Agreement’s pledge to keep the border open] but on a practical level it also works pretty well, and has led to a lot of integration between north and south.”

On top of these existing checks, an all-Ireland zone would require the creation of a sanitary and phytosanitary area that in essence covers “everything to do with food standards and safety,” according to Keen.

A similar zone was mooted by think tank the Alternative Arrangements Commission in July. All it would require would be checks at Northern Irish ports to ensure food coming in from Great Britain was aligned with Irish rules, says a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association.

“That takes the risk away from the land border, in one respect, by moving it to the Belfast ports,” he suggests.

Political parties, most prominently the DUP, have in the past strongly objected to the concept of a border in the Irish Sea. But it shouldn’t cause any real issues, suggests Robert Hardy, commercial director of Oakland Invicta. “It’s not really in the sea, it’s just a border on the ship. The customs process is taking place during the three-hour crossing rather than somewhere else,” he adds.

Political stance

The DUP succeeded in pushing former PM Theresa May into making the backstop UK-wide, but they might not hold as much sway over Boris Johnson, suggests Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Lords EU select committee, Lord Teverson.

“Because Boris Johnson has got no majority whatsoever, he no longer needs the DUP quite the way he did,” he adds. “It is conceivable he could get away with [a common food zone]. I think even the DUP could find their way around that just about.”

Indeed, after a meeting to discuss it in Downing Street on Tuesday, reports suggested the DUP were receptive to the idea of expanding on the current system. Their only insistence was that Northern Ireland must not differ from the mainland in its tariff arrangements.

The view from the EU, meanwhile, is that Johnson’s proposal finally marks a shift in the UK’s stance on Brexit.

The EU’s incoming trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, this week told the Irish Times it was the first time a British PM has been prepared to accept some level of divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. “If we can build on that we certainly might get closer to one another in terms of a possible outcome,” he added.

So perhaps, as a hypothetical day-one solution in the event of it being required, an ‘all-Ireland food zone’ could work on a technical and a political level.

However, there could be issues in how the zone adapts to future changes in UK food standards, particularly given the UK’s plan to sign free-trade agreements after Brexit, adds the NFU’s Keen.

“What the EU will be really wary of is over what happens if the UK starts to diverge.

“They would be very wary of that, because of what that means for potential trade frictions and what the implication is for what could end up on the European market.”

Any divergence in tariffs between the north and south could also encourage smuggling, industry leaders fear. By extension, that raises the spectre of security.

The big returns available to criminals could even open the doors to food fraud, adds the NIFDA spokesman. “If the UK were to do a free-trade deal with Brazil, for example, you would find the value of a pallet of sirloin steaks could be worth £6,000 more in the south than in the north. [Say] you are a smuggler sitting in the north: if you can get those pallets across the border you make £6,000 a tonne on them,” he says.

“The challenge for the EU is tax differentials facilitate smuggling of products that could make people sick if they were smuggled in a very bad way.”

The easiest way to mitigate these threats would be for the UK to sign up to a customs union. But then “you arrive at something similar to the [original] backstop”, he adds.

So perhaps, as Lord Teverson suggests, this whole idea should be viewed as a “first step to sound out whether there is any flexibility on the other side”.

After all, getting a deal over the line might be one of the only ways Boris Johnson can navigate the hurdles Theresa May failed to deal with before her downfall


The backstop

  • The UK and EU have agreed Brexit should not jeopardise the political or security situation on the Irish border.
  • Their solution, known as the backstop, is a position of last resort to keep an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
  • It currently involves the UK maintaining a close relationship with the EU indefinitely if a final deal is not agreed before the end of a transition period or if a deal does not guarantee a soft border
  • It was initially Northern Ireland-only but the DUP forced Theresa May to make it UK-wide