Whatever about the global trade opportunities created by Brexit, the simple fact is that the EU is on the UK’s doorstep, and with long-established supply chains, logic would suggest that the UK government would be keen to protect this trade. In 2020, approximately 60% of all UK agri-food exports were to the EU.
However, to date the whole Brexit process has been driven by politics not economics, and that has been to the detriment of food businesses in Britain looking to sell into the EU and also NI. The bureaucracy is not sustainable, nor is the level of checks and inspections expected of DAERA and other government agencies at NI ports. Once a grace period for retail goods into NI ends on 1 October 2021, the situation looks unworkable.
In terms of solutions, some have suggested an NI-only option, whereby animal- and plant-based products from Britain not “at risk” of being sold into the EU (Republic of Ireland) are exempted from so-called sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks at NI ports.
It would significantly reduce trade friction, and the political tensions around the imposition of the NI Protocol.
The UK as a sovereign nation could agree to align on SPS requirements for a defined period
It would also offer a competitive advantage for NI companies, who would continue to be able to trade unfettered into the EU, while counterparts in Britain face a major bureaucratic barrier.
The other option is a UK-wide veterinary agreement with the EU, which effectively would remove a large chunk of the bureaucracy at both NI and EU ports.
While UK government ministers have appeared reluctant to pursue that, instead favouring to assert UK sovereignty via a complete break from EU rules, it is a position that makes no sense. The UK as a sovereign nation could agree to align on SPS requirements for a defined period.
Of course, the EU would also have to agree to this. Perhaps if the UK had taken the same approach as the EU, and implemented SPS controls from 1 January 2021 (rather than a gradual introduction), the EU would be pushing harder to get to the negotiating table.