After years of delay and much passionate debate, UK border checks on imports from the EU finally became a reality this week.

That they began with minimal operational difference at the UK border posts was no surprise given the pragmatic approach adopted by the UK government on their introduction.

The introduction, which had been delayed on several occasions because of delays in getting the structure in place, began in January with the introduction of documentary controls, with physical inspection of containers introduced on Wednesday 1 May.

Checks for imports from Ireland will commence from November 2024 at the earliest.

Inflation concern

Concerns have been voiced by UK importers, particularly those that import goods of animal and plant origin which are subject to sanitary and phytosanitary controls (SPS).

These typically include meat, dairy, vegetables and cut flowers, which are all large-volume imports by the UK from their EU neighbours.

There is a fear that these controls will increase the price of goods and the risk of further adding to inflation was one of the reasons given for delaying introduction until now.

However, the impact of inspections will be reduced by the government deciding to take a flexible approach to their implementation.

It is expected that physical inspections will be introduced slowly and progressively so that the transit of goods isn’t disrupted to any great extent.

EU approach

This approach contrasts with the experience of exporters from Britain who have been subject to full border controls since the UK left the EU single market at the start of 2021.

It has been a considerable frustration for British exporters that they have had to adapt to the reintroduction of certification and the disruption to transport arrangements for groupage, while their EU counterparts could continue to serve the UK unimpeded.

In fact, it was SPS controls that forced many micro businesses to cease exporting to the EU because SPS rules required certification for every single delivery, which added cost and made the business uneconomical.

Large-volume exporters such as meat and dairy processors were able to adapt to the new circumstances as a typical consignment from them was a full container load, which required a single certificate.

While this will now add a cost and inconvenience for Irish exporters to Britain, the reality is that the prolonged lead-in and experience of substantial exports beyond the EU means that disruption should be minimal when the checks begin in November.


The introduction of full border controls by the UK in many respects marks the completion of the Brexit process by the UK government.

There remain outstanding issues, such as access to veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland, but, in general, UK-EU trade has moved to a settled place. It is not as simple or as cost effective as it was in the single market, but, in general, it works.

What of the future? There is much speculation that if there is a change of government after the UK election later this year that a new incoming government would negotiate a more co-operative arrangement with the EU.

The EU has denied any reopening of the Brexit negotiation, but, in practice, the process has been an ongoing negotiation and the reality is that it will likely continue this way.

An SPS deal which was on the table would be an extremely pragmatic step in freeing trade and if that was achieved without any outcry, we could expect that in the second half of this decade, further “arrangements” between the EU and UK could be arrived at, even if the UK rejoining the EU is unlikely for a generation at least.