Finally the EU and UK have agreed a basic free-trade agreement. It means that on 1 January Irish produce will continue to flow into the British market tariff- and quota-free.

The threat of a tax, equivalent to €1.35bn per annum, being levied on food imports into Britain from Ireland is now gone. But unfortunately the threat of Brexit to the income of Irish farmers remains.

Immediately there will be the challenge and costs of dealing with non-tariff barriers. Increased regulator checks and inspections not will now be required for produce entering the British market. These have been calculated to cost the equivalent of 10-12c/kg in the case of beef and 1.2c/l for dairy products.

Real cost

But this is only the start. The real cost will come in the erosion of value in the UK market. It will not happen overnight but the direction of travel will be clear and sustained.

While we await details, it is likely that the basic free-trade agreement still leaves the British government free to open up its markets to third countries in a bid to achieve its global trade ambitions.

Meanwhile the US, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay will all want a slice of the cake as each seek to advance trade relations

With imports averaging close to €100m per day, allowing access to their agri-food market is one of the most valuable bargaining chips the British have in realising their global trade ambitions. Despite words of comfort in relation supporting British farmers, it is a chip that will quickly come into play.

Already we see trade negotiations with both Australia and New Zealand at an advanced stage. Both countries are focused on gaining access for beef and dairy products into the British market. It is not inconceivable that each will have a presence secured within months.

Meanwhile, the US, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay will all want a slice of the cake as each seek to advance trade relations.


In this scenario, a declining share of a lower-value market will effectively become the trade barrier that will see Irish food exports into Britain significantly curtailed in the years ahead.

Those that put faith in British retailers and consumers to resist cheaper imports forget that this is the same supply chain that a few years ago had no issue with buying six burgers for £1.

A further threat will come if the British market is effectively allowed to become a revolving door for agricultural commodities - one where British-produced food would have unrestricted access into the EU market only for its internal market to be topped up by cheap food imports from across the world.

Safeguard clause

In the absence of safeguard clause, this would allow a scenario develop where Irish food exports into the British market would be displaced by cheap global imports while at the same time competing in the EU market with British produce.

So rather than celebrating a basic free-trade agreement, that will merely delay rather than prevent the economic impact of Brexit on farm incomes, attention needs to quickly focus on how affected sectors can be supported.

The €5bn EU Brexit crisis fund, plus a financial commitment from national Government, will provide short-term pain relief in 2021. But it is not a long-term solution to a problem which will steadily become more acute.


A long-term strategy is needed that includes, but extends beyond, financial assistance. Market reorientation will be require to underpin both demand and value within the EU market for product displaced from Britain.

A key aspect of this will be a commitment to revise EU market access for non EU countries – particularly in the case of beef.

The political resistance to achieving this should not be underestimated. Exceptional aid measures for a restructuring of various sectors, such as the Irish suckler herd should also be sought.

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