Following Brexit, the EU brought in full customs controls for UK goods on 1 January 2021. The UK government on the other hand decided to phase in border controls for most goods, not least food and plant imports.
Various dates for implementation have come and gone, with the 5th delay announced as we write this in August 2023. Little seems likely to happen until 2024, or later, the proposed method also appears to have changed.
Downgraded Border Posts
The Major Ports Group invested around £100 million of their own money into building border posts, with public funds also spent. There were other reasons but a primary function of these posts was physical checks on food imports.
Alongside delay, government announcements appear to state that a lighter touch, IT based checking system will be established to meet requirements. The new border posts essentially not required.
One port authority director suggested turning them into libraries, with invisible books, so they don’t need to be checked in and out. He felt this matched the government’s approach to Brexit, although other parties were more vociferous.
An Unequal Playing Field
A one directional border makes no sense to the British Veterinary Association, who stated this “Flies in the face of common sense and the government’s commitment to preserve high levels of animal and human health in the UK”.
The National Farmers Union called the delay “Another blow to farmers already struggling with enormous inflationary costs and ongoing labour shortages”. Stating that burden free EU access to the UK market damages competition.
A number of UK businesses will clearly be at a competitive disadvantage, although there is a need to provide affordable food to fill the shelves.
Dealing With Reality
Our government acknowledged the issue, the Brexit Opportunities Minister stating that going ahead with the checks would be “an act of self-harm”. The same minister who earlier suggested there was little evidence that Brexit affected trade.
The core concern was that increased costs would be passed onto the consumer, at a time the war in Ukraine and inflation are already increasing cost. A valid point, yet one which would have existed to an extent without the other factors.
We are significantly reliant on the EU for our food, any thought that making imports more burdensome would not increase costs seems illogical.
There are benefits for UK supermarkets, their logistics support and their customers but not to UK farmers, or other businesses. They can only come if the EU voluntarily decide to reciprocate by lowering their barriers.
Looking To The Future
The EU choosing to move towards the newly announced UK stance is not impossible but is there the incentive, or spirit of cooperation to make this happen.
An EU trade representative asked about the postponement on checks did state they had wanted a more open deal anyway. His view was they had been forced down a different route, with issues of sovereignty blocking shared ways forward.
Perhaps the ATA carnets for the EU we supply can suggest another approach. As part of a global system they are working quite flawlessly, not subject to national interest, just to facilitating cross border trade.
An equally balanced, forward looking approach to UK-EU trade might see a friendly spirit return, both sides able to focus on business.