Many of us are perhaps too jaded by five years of Brexit drum banging to get overly excited about the apparent easing of the latest knot in the yarn over Northern Ireland. It’s been a long road, and there’s a long way still to go. But for now at least, some things are at least moving in the right direction.
The EU is expected to confirm a three-month grace period extension for British chilled meat products moving into Northern Ireland tomorrow, while Maroš Šefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator, told the Northern Ireland assembly this week that the Commission was prepared to reduce checks to an “absolute minimum” if the UK demonstrated a “clear and concrete commitment” to the NI Protocol.
It is undoubtedly an improved field of play than a few weeks ago when ‘Sausage War’ rhetoric hit its peak, but businesses aren’t dancing on the rooftops just yet.
There remain few signs that either side has yet gone beyond political wrangling and sought to agree long-term technical solutions to the very real problems plaguing businesses on the Irish Sea border.
Of these, SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) measures remains the most challenging. As it stands, the EU’s SPS requirements mandate rigorous border processes and full veterinary checks on animal products such as meat, dairy, and fish entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Supermarkets and their suppliers are currently exempt from the requirements under a grace period until later in the year, but smaller players have had no such luck.
The requirements are the main reason why mixed ‘groupage’ loads across the Irish Sea have virtually collapsed and forced many small companies to pull out of the province altogether. Supermarkets are making what plans they can for when their grace periods end but it will still undoubtedly be disruptive.
The food industry continues to urge both the UK and the EU to reach an agreement that minimises SPS checks in the long term. Realistically, a veterinary agreement is the only way this will happen for businesses of all sizes. The question is what that looks like. While Šefcovic has pledged to reduce checks to an “absolute minimum”, this will only occur on the condition that the UK signs up to ‘dynamic alignment’ in which any regulatory changes in Brussels are copied in the UK.
This is unacceptable for Boris Johnson, David Frost and co, who want the EU to see the UK’s regulations rules as ‘equivalent’ albeit different. A landing zone between the two positions remains some way off.
A compromise is obscured further by the fact neither side has publicised their list of asks. What is their end game here? From the UK’s perspective, is it hoping that all checks are avoided on goods crossing into Northern Ireland? If so, then dynamic alignment is realistically the only way. If it is happy for only some checks to be removed, then a deal on equivalence is probably within the frame.
As the can continues to get kicked further and further down the road in search of a long-term solution, British businesses are losing out. According to RTE, tomorrow’s sausage ban extension will be accompanied by an acknowledgement from the UK that the delay is in place to allow Northern Ireland supermarkets to adapt their supply chains. Or, in other words, to replace British suppliers with European ones. Ah yes, yet another Brexit dividend.