UK legislation to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland protocol is on its way. The move brings nothing but negative consequences for farmers and the agri-food industry across the island of Ireland. It is inevitable that there will be a reaction from the EU should the UK government move to unilaterally breach international law by effectively tearing up the protocol.
The concern is the nature of this response and the impact it will have on both north-south and east-west trade, and potentially the flow of goods from Ireland into other EU markets.
Farmers and the agri-food sector are by far the most exposed to any potential EU-UK trade dispute. The objective of the protocol is to enable NI have continued participation in the EU single market even though the rest of the UK is now outside it. But for it to function, border controls are necessary on product coming into NI from Britain, a requirement that is seen by some to undermine the integrity of the UK.
While it is understandable that there are political sensitivities with such arrangements, from a farming and food industry perspective, the protocol works as it was intended. NI factories continue to bring beef and sheep carcases in from Britain for processing and sell these products in the British and EU market. At the same time, livestock and milk continues to flow across the Irish border in both directions.
But if the EU and UK cannot agree on the operation of the protocol, then the EU has a problem in that protecting the integrity of the single market is sacrosanct. To maintain the free flow of goods both across the island and the Irish Sea, the EU requires the UK to continue to operate EU border controls on product entering NI from Britain. If the British government refuses to do this, as it has indicated, responsibility for protecting the EU single market falls back on the EU and the Irish Government.
This creates a problem for cross-border trade in milk and livestock, particularly for north-south trade as it is coming from what will be effectively a third country into the EU. No doubt the EU would be supportive of the Irish Government in grappling with such a situation but its core priority will be the protection of the single market.
A possible solution is that the functioning of the protocol might move to the Irish Government as an alternative in the event the UK government refuses to operate the protocol in NI. This “flexibility” would have the effect of allowing the Republic of Ireland function as part of the UK single market in much the same way as the common travel area operates currently.
However, just as this means passport controls in Ireland that don’t apply between other EU countries in the Schengen area, it would also mean Ireland enforcing EU border controls to protect the single market.
It is most unlikely in this situation that there would be any attempt to introduce a border on the island of Ireland. Such a move would bring particular difficulties for Irish processors that source milk or livestock supplies from NI as outside the current protocol they would be treated as non-EU product. Any disruption to these supplies from the north would have serious consequences for processors in the northern half of the country and farmer suppliers alike.
A move to place stricter border controls on EU imports would put Irish food exports to Britain in a vulnerable place
Rather, it is more likely that the Government would look to administer border controls at the point of goods entering business or distribution chains, with additional controls put in place at points of departure for the rest of the EU. Ultimately this could lead to border checks being carried out at Irish ports on products leaving the island of Ireland for EU markets.
As it stands, the UK government has indicated no intention to introduce border controls on exports from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. Therefore, Irish exports to the UK should remain uninterrupted. However, any retaliation by the EU to the decision to scrap the existing protocol risks a further response from Downing Street. A move to place stricter border controls on EU imports would put Irish food exports to Britain in a vulnerable place.
Farmers on the island of Ireland have more or less escaped Brexit consequences to date. For this to continue, a mutually agreed arrangement has to be in place. Attempts to find a model serves as a reminder of just how convenient the single market was for trade on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. It was the perfect model and is proving exceptionally difficult to replicate.