It is now over five years since the UK decided to leave the EU, and while a basic trade agreement was put in place for the start of this year, the settled future trading relationship between the UK and the EU remains uncertain.

For agriculture on the island of Ireland, the UK departure from the EU single market and customs union was always going to be problematical. However, the development of a model that allowed Northern Ireland to have continued participation in the EU single market, as well as the UK single market, looked like a good idea. Unfortunately, the implementation of this arrangement, which involves EU border controls being implemented at Northern Ireland ports on trade from Britain, has proved politically and operationally difficult.

How did we get here?

It was only after the surprise vote to leave in the referendum in 2016 that the debate in the UK began on what type of a relationship it should have with the EU when it left.

Political instability followed the referendum; the then prime minster, David Cameron, resigned and was replaced by Theresa May. Her Government made two decisions in early 2017 that made a complicated withdrawal process even more complicated.

The first was to declare that the UK would formally trigger the process defined under Article 50 of the EU constitution for leaving the EU. Once this was done, a time limit of two years was automatically set for the departure and this applied added pressure to secure an agreement on the type of future structure that should replace EU membership.

The second was to call a snap general election in which her Conservative party lost its majority in parliament. She continued in Government with the assistance of a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, but for the remainder of her time as prime minister she was greatly constrained in getting policy approved by parliament.

The UK Brexit position was further complicated by the fact that those who were pro-remain in the referendum were unable to unite behind a single position on the formation of a close trading relationship with the EU that would retain some elements of EU membership. This conundrum was most prevalent in the opposition Labour Party, which was seriously divided and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had himself opposed to EU membership in a previous vote back in 1975.

On the other hand, those who believed in Brexit were consistent in wanting the maximum break possible with the EU and unwilling to countenance any relationship that tied the UK to the EU in any way. Whatever doubts there may be about the merits of this position, it was easy to communicate and this in time would become particularly important.

By the middle of 2019, Theresa May’s time as prime minister was up following persistent failure to secure parliament support for a UK position and the deadline of 31 March for Brexit was missed. Boris Johnson was elected to replace her and he called a further election in December 2019 where he won convincingly under the simple slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

From that point, the UK was on a course for maximum separation with the EU. However, surprisingly, Johnson and his government, plus parliament, agreed on the since controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, which required Northern Ireland to implement EU border controls at its ports.

Trade and Co-operation Agreement

In the year after Johnson won the election, a fraught negotiation continued with the EU but eventually a basic free-trade agreement was concluded on Christmas Eve last year to come into effect on 1 January 2021. The new Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) is far removed from the UK being part of a single market and customs union, where any product or person was free to move anywhere between the 28 countries that made up the EU.

When the UK left, trade between it and the 27 remaining EU members was subject to full customs and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls.

The EU implemented these controls immediately but the UK decided to defer twice and it is now due to implement these controls from 1 October and 1 January.

Crunch time

When the UK government implements full SPS controls, it will be a crunch time for Irish exporters and in turn farmers. SPS controls apply to goods that are of animal or plant origin and require a veterinary certificate for every single delivery consignment, plus they are subject to port inspections as well.

In the case of UK exports to the EU, where full controls have been in place since 1 January, food and drink exports are down by 47% – almost halved. This is partly due to less supply and stockpiling but in essence, exports from small and micro traders have almost ceased, such are the additional cost and logistical difficulties.

Northern Ireland Protocol

There is also the issue of operating the Northern Ireland Protocol. This has enabled farm produce continue to be traded in the same way as it was when the UK incorporating Northern Ireland was part of the EU.

Therefore, the one-third of NI milk and 40% of NI lambs that go south for processing could continue doing so. The same applies to the 400,000 Republic of Ireland pigs and tens of thousands of cattle that go the other way and are processed in NI.

However, the border controls on trade between Britain and NI are a problem.

Huge numbers of small deliveries that are part of an internal supermarket distribution system simply cannot be accommodated under the traditional structure that was designed for international trade.

This has been an ongoing source of friction between the EU and UK and discussions are ongoing to try to resolve this.

If an arrangement can be found that the EU and UK can live with, this could be the basis for a reset of EU-UK relations for trade. If not, then the island of Ireland becomes the trade battlefront between both parties, and it is almost inevitable that it will be damaging for farmers both sides of the Irish border. A solution simply has to be found.