Farmers across the island of Ireland may be suffering from Brexit fatigue like everyone else.

However, the big difference is that if the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU collapses or is even damaged, it is farmers who will take the brunt of consequences more than any other sector of society.

Since the UK decided to leave the EU six years ago next month, multiple crises have arisen and a last-minute solution or fudge has always been found.

There is a strong case to be made that this will happen again and what we are really witnessing is the outworking of negotiation positions in the north around Executive formation and a Westminster government that is keen to distract from lockdown party fines and possible manoeuvring by others looking for the prime minister’s job.

Serious for farmers

All of this would be staple diet for political anoraks and mildly amusing for casual observers but it has the potential to be devastating for farmers either side of the border.

However, if the UK government unilaterally changes the Protocol, then there will inevitably be EU reaction with a targeted response. This is what happened in the trade dispute with the US over the BoeingAirbus dispute which was eventually resolved after more than a decade of wrangling.

The TCA means that trade between the UK and EU countries is tariff-free

The difference in any dispute with the UK is that there is a comprehensive Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in place, and if all goes wrong between the EU and UK, suspension of it is a real possibility. This is where it gets critical for farmers.

The TCA means that trade between the UK and EU countries is tariff-free.

In the absence or suspension of this agreement, full tariffs would be applied and these are prohibitive on trade for agricultural produce.

In fact, they are so large that it would mean Ireland with just 5% of EU trade with the UK would pay the highest amount of tariffs, even more than Germany which has 25% of EU trade with the UK (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Graphics showing impact of Brexit on EU countries

Tariffs would make trade prohibitive

It would also decimate cross-border trade on the island of Ireland. Tariffs would make it prohibitive to send milk or sheep from Northern Ireland across the border for processing or pigs and cattle the other way. That would seriously disrupt markets and processing both sides of the border.

Logic would suggest that it will never come to this and there will be a solution found at the last minute as has always been the way up to this point.

There were several occasions during the TCA negotiation when breakdown looked inevitable and a no-deal Brexit was on the cards. That never came to pass and the hope, even expectation, is that it won't happen this time either and a solution will be found.

Farmers will be hoping this is the case but there is no room for complacency given the enormity of the consequences should the TCA be suspended.

Farmers are the most vulnerable group when it comes to the trading relationship between the EU and UK and the ongoing uncertainty adds to the stress of the industry at an already stressful time with surging production costs.