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Food trade between the UK and EU almost returned to pre-Brexit levels during the first four months of 2022.

Data updated by the EU Commission this week showed the bloc’s food, drink and tobacco imports from the UK hit €4.5bn from January to April, up on the €3.3bn reported during the same period last year.

This pushed the number closer to the €4.9bn recorded during the first third of 2020, before the post-Brexit trade deal was implemented in January 2021, although the figure was still some way short of the €5.6bn mark seen in 2019.

Imports from the EU, which make up around a quarter of total food consumed in the UK, were worth €13.4bn over the first four months of this year, up on the €11.3bn reported for the same period last year and more than the €12.3bn recorded for the first four months of 2020.

Overall exports of goods, including food, drink and tobacco, from the EU to UK, rose by 17.2% to €103.5bn, while the EU’s imports from the UK climbed by 54% to €65.8bn, the Commission announced in a Wednesday statement.

British trade data published on Monday by the Office for National Statistics also showed an uptick, with monthly goods exports to the EU up 4.2% in April to what it said were “the highest level since record began” and imports up 8.1%. The increase in exports was fuelled in part by the UK’s energy sales to the EU surging as the bloc weighed up ending its reliance on its mammoth oil and gas imports from Russia, after the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.

Official Irish numbers released on Wednesday pointed to a similar trend, showing goods trade with the UK had surged compared with earlier in the post-Brexit period.

Irish exports of food and live animals to Great Britain came to €1.2bn for the first four months of 2022, compared with €919m during the same period last year. Ireland’s imports of British food and live animals were also up, worth €671m during the January-April period this year, compared with the €544m recorded for the same period in 2021. Trade with Northern Ireland, which Dublin counts separately to trade with the rest of the UK, was also up, the data showed. 

Overall, the latest data suggested UK-EU trade was approaching – in value terms and in a period of four-decade highs for consumer and commodity price inflation – levels last seen before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago and the ensuing restrictions on movement and businesses.

However, the positive trade outlook could be short-lived, after the Commission announced on Wednesday it would take the UK to the European Court of Justice over the UK government’s decision this week to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland protocol – prompting threats of a trade war.

It came after the UK last month postponed applying physical checks on imports from the EU, which would mostly affect the food and farm sectors, until at least the end of 2023, citing months of food and consumer inflation that had been exacerbated the war in Ukraine. 

The announcement drew criticism from the British food industry and logistics businesses, who accused the government of wasting their time and money as they had been preparing for the start of checks, which environment secretary George Eustice said only weeks earlier would go ahead as planned.

In the meantime, some parts of the food sector called on the government to speed up entry for fresh food imports, though other parts such as poultry had earlier called on the government to impose controls on goods from the EU, saying competitors in the bloc were being given an unfair advantage given British food exports to the EU were facing checks.

Still others called on the EU and UK to thrash out a veterinary deal that would, they contend, obviate the most onerous checks on food or animal products.