This week, the Irish Road Haulage association told the Irish Farmers Journal that direct sailings to Europe were adding €1,000 per round trip, and trucks coming back empty from Britain were costing €500.

It is similar in the north, where the UFU president Victor Chestnutt told the National Farmers Union Scotland conference that trucks returning empty could cost businesses up to £1m (€1.15m) annually.

Outworking of Brexit

That there are additional costs with Brexit shouldn’t be a surprise.

Reintroduction of veterinary certificates, customs documentation and inspections are red tape that the EU single market removed, and when that is no longer there, these returned.

Part of the difficulty with Brexit is that there was little appreciation of what it would mean ahead of the actual event on 1 January.

In the UK, the debate focused on for and against. Those that were opposed were focused on trying to reverse the decision in the referendum rather than concentrating on giving effect to Brexit with the minimum amount of disruption.

British exports

Industry in Britain, unlike Ireland, has a huge domestic market and exports are a bolt-on, whereas in Ireland, the agri-food industry is export dependent.

That has meant that in Britain, less preparations were made and there are also issues with the logistics, particularly in getting access to vets for health certificates.

There is also a cost to this, which makes doing export business unattractive for smaller exporters.

Due to the minimal nature of the EU-UK agreement, full veterinary certificates and inspections are required for all goods of either animal or plant origin (SPS controls).

What can be done?

The official position is that the agreement is made and won’t be renegotiated. There is a review mechanism after five years and in the meantime, the agreement will be implemented by a joint EU-UK Partnership Council, serviced by special technical committees.

Present problems will get worse when concessions for NI retailers expire after three and six months, and Britain introduces veterinary certificates in April and inspections in July.

This means that present difficulties will get worse.

No checks are required at all for Switzerland and Norway, as their agreement has them completely aligned with the EU

However there is also a potential solution. The UK minister with responsibility for agriculture, George Eustice, said recently that the UK would work on a veterinary partnerhsip agreement through the technical committees and Partnerhsip Council that implements the agreement.

The EU already has special agreements with New Zealand and Canada.

These mean just a 1% check on meat coming in from New Zealand and 10% on Canada. No checks are required at all for Switzerland and Norway, as their agreement has them completely aligned with the EU.

The UK has also always been adamant that withdrawal from the EU would not mean a compromise on standards. So far, that hasn’t happened, nor does it seem imminent. Any agreement could be made subject to the UK maintaining its current aligned position and if they decided to diverge in the future, it would revert to the present arrangement of full SPS controls.

With the correct political will in London and Brussels, surely a means could be found in the technical committee and Partnership Council on these controls, to operationally recognise the de-facto alignment that is still in place.

Small problem for EU overall

Part of the difficulty in building enthusiasm in the EU for this is that it is a problem largely confined to the UK and Ireland. There is weariness in the EU corridors of power as they wrestle with COVID-19 vaccines and try to relaunch the EU economies post-pandemic. They don’t care about Britain, and believe they have done their bit to help the Irish Government by avoiding a land border in Ireland.

Brexit has happened and it won’t change

Yet it is only now six weeks into the new trading arrangement that we are in a position to fully appreciate what it means and there is more to come when the UK fully introduce its controls and grace periods run out in NI.

The cost of this ultimately becomes a cost for the supply chain and in that debate, history has taught us that farmers usually finish up with a large share of the burden.

Brexit has happened and it won’t change. That doesn’t prevent the UK from entering a veterinary alignment or agreement, which would go a long way to making Brexit work at a practical and political level.