Sovereignty and freedom. That’s what Brexit was all about, no? Not punishing our quintessential British tins of rice pudding, our iconic all-butter shortbread, or even, God forbid, the humble chocolate digestive.
Unfortunately that is the situation we now find ourselves in. Or at least will do from 20 April, when any food containing ingredients of animal origin may suddenly need vet-approved health certificates. Yes, those same certificates that have left whole shipments of meat rotting at EU borders this month. That contributed towards the government’s £23m bailout of the fishing industry last week. That have seen ham sandwiches confiscated by customs officials. And the problems surrounding these certificates may be about to get a whole lot worse.
Why? Because an EU regulation that currently offers exemptions on the certificates to foods containing, for example, less than 50% dairy (like shortbread), or at room temperature (like tinned rice pudding), is due to end. This is not a question of the ‘EU punishing the UK’ (though it is certainly the worst affected of any country), but a change, from April 2019, that will apply to goods imported from any third country.
There remains hope that Brussels could still opt to roll over at least some of the exemptions, but there are few signs of them doing so.
Of all the unintended consequences of Brexit, this issue is so unexpected, the UK government doesn’t even refer to it on its ‘Brexit transition’ help page (which, also uninentionally, features a prophetic picture of a German woman handling goods in a German factory.) Instead, some businesses have been left to find out from their European counterparts, who seem more informed than certain parts of the UK government.
Health certificates can cost up to £200 a pop and as we can already see with small meat, cheese and organic suppliers, any such expense quickly makes trade with the EU and even Northern Ireland unviable. European buyers are not going to accept such costs on British goods when often they can be found cheaper elsewhere inside the EU.
UK officials are seemingly alert to the damage already being caused, reportedly advising some firms to set up subsidiaries inside the EU to avoid disruption. It is an overtly sensible policy – albeit the political optics for Boris Johnson & co don’t look good – so it is striking that the trade department insisted it was “not government policy”. Of course not. Why ever choose pragmatism over politics?