UK ‘throwing kitchen sink’ at making N Ireland Brexit deal work

Boris Johnson called some of his requirements “absurd” and “ridiculous” this week. But even if the UK Prime Minister announces “further steps” to unilaterally mitigate the effects of his post-Brexit deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, “the British government machine is” throwing the sink “to make it work.

Trade groups have told the FT that despite Johnson’s rhetoric, British government officials are stepping up efforts to implement the NI Protocol – part of the 2019 Brexit Divorce Agreement, which requires all goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK to comply with EU customs regulations.

“Whitehall is throwing the sink on this thing,” said Stephen Kelly, general manager of Manufacturing Northern Ireland. “I don’t remember ever seeing this level of commitment across the UK government. Officials are working on their back ends to try and make it work. “

Tensions between the UK and Brussels over the protocol have increased since the UK-EU trade deal entered into force after Brexit in January.

Last month, the European Commission took legal action against the UK after unilaterally extending the grace period for post-Brexit trade rules. Despite this move, the disruption and friction inflicted on businesses in the region since Brexit has sparked a wave of unrest, particularly in loyalist communities. Belfast has seen some of the worst civil unrest in years.

The port of Larne in County Antrim has been a hotspot for tension over post-Brexit trade deals. © Brian Lawless / PA

Both sides are determined to find a solution to the problems caused by the protocol – and are holding intensive talks. They strive to avoid further violence.

But the split between the two sides – at least in public – seems bigger than ever before. Brussels remains “strong” on the need for full implementation of the measures signed by the UK.

Meanwhile, Johnson used a BBC interview to mark the region’s imminent 100th anniversary and insist that he “sand down” the “unnecessary protuberances and barriers” caused by the protocol.

Working with high pressure

Northern Irish trading groups say the reality on the UK side is very different from Johnson’s characterization of the situation. They say British officials put in bureaucratic fixes to make the protocol work in compliance with the legal requirements set out in the agreement.

This includes a system to avoid steel tariffs in the UK en route to Northern Ireland. Stopping Royal Mail auto-generated customs forms for goods entering the Republic of Ireland; and refining a system that allows companies to use their historical trade records to reduce the number of dutiable “vulnerable” goods.

The government has also invested £ 200 million in a dealer support service. a movement aid system to support supermarkets and grocery retailers; and a £ 155 million digital aid program aimed at reducing border breaches by digitizing paperwork, starting with fresh meat products this October. This emerges from a government presentation by the Financial Times that was presented to the industry.

Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, publicly praised the government’s “excellent commitment” this week after meeting Lord David Frost, British Minister responsible for Brexit implementation, and Northern Irish Secretary Brandon Lewis Week.

“The NI business community is working hard with the government to find solutions and, to be fair, we’re getting more engagement than ever,” he said, warning of the need for a more risk-focused approach from Brussels.

The question that preoccupies the industries hardest hit is whether any of these UK efforts, many of which rely on technological solutions, will create workable solutions in the field at a time when the European Commission is determined to take a risk-free approach to follow up on the record.

Some loyalists in Northern Ireland are opposed to the Brexit deal because it creates a trade border between the UK and the region. © Paul Faith / AFP / Getty Images

EU Brexit Commissioner Maros Sefcovic told the FT last week that the implementation of the protocol should be done in a way that minimizes disruption to daily life, but also guarantees that “the integrity of the internal market is maintained and there are no health threats at all”.

“We really need to work on it and find out what kind of solution we could come up with. It will not be easy and probably not everything can be resolved because the UK has indeed decided to leave the single market, the customs union, SPS [veterinary] Area. Of course, this has very specific consequences. “

“Technology won’t rub away paper problems”

The UK Government has stated that it is dealing with the EU on the Protocol in a “constructive atmosphere” and that while difficult problems have remained unsolved, any solutions must ensure “minimal disruption to everyday life in Northern Ireland”.

Over the past few weeks, both the hospitality sector, slated to reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown ends, and the pharmaceutical sector have publicly warned that introducing EU laws into their supply chains will be extremely problematic.

Connolly wants Brussels to accept that a “verifiable and certified supply chain” underpinned by the proposed digital assistance system should be enough for the EU to take a more pragmatic, risk-based approach to what it describes as “tiny” Risk pursued to the EU internal market for goods from Great Britain that reach the republic via the Northern Irish border.

The reality now is that a UK cow does not have the same health status as a NI cow

However, Shane Brennan, executive director of the Cold Chain Federation, said that given the complexity and speed of modern food and hospitality supply chains, there is a real limit to how much controls can be reduced.

“Ministers seem to be pinning their hopes on creating a terribly expensive digital build that will tackle the most immediate and visible problems, but they don’t necessarily see how this will cement inflexibility and permanently disadvantage Northern Ireland consumers,” he said.

Peter Hardwick, trade policy advisor to the British Meat Processors Association, agreed. He reiterated the widespread industry view that the only real “solution” would be for the UK to agree closer alignment with EU rules on food and herbal products.

“Technology won’t be able to drag these things away. You can smooth things out a bit, but that won’t fix the problem as the reality now is that a UK cow is not in the same state of health as a cow in NI. “

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