Media reports at the weekend suggest that the EU and UK are edging towards an agreement and a fix on the controversial rules for goods entering Northern Ireland (NI) from Britain.
These are particularly demanding for goods of animal or plant origin as they require both veterinary certification and a high risk of physical inspection as well at NI ports of entry.
What is the problem?
These Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) controls are designed for major volumes of internationally traded goods. Therefore, they are manageable for ship loads of grain or 20t containers of meat traded across the world.
What they were never designed for, nor are they suitable for, is internal trade of consumer products. This is effectively what Asda or Sainsbury do when servicing NI supermarkets from their huge warehouse distribution centres in Britain.
This was an inevitable and foreseeable consequence of a Brexit deal that removed the UK from the EU single market and customs union. However with the merits of that debate being history, it is a case now of finding a way that enables the EU protect its single market while at the same time minimising disruption on what is internal UK trade.
How can it be fixed?
While technically the EU may be correct in requiring all products moving between Britain and NI to be subject to SPS rules, a risk-based assessment can quickly identify large amounts of goods that have no risk of entering the EU 27 other than perhaps for personal use. Anything that is sold at retail level in NI has negligible risk of being traded further as there simply isn’t the commercial incentive.
Similarly a NI based online shopper sourcing small quantities of plants for a domestic garden isn’t going to flood the EU with supplies. If these type of scenarios can be addressed with a better less fraught long-term solution, then there is an opportunity to widen the discussion.
Such arrangements wouldn’t address the longer term disruption of commercial trade such as Scottish fish exports or indeed small businesses trading mail order cheese or other goods to mainland EU. This could be only accomplished by an agreement for the UK and EU to have a veterinary alignment which would remove the need for veterinary certification and inspections entirely.
Bespoke as opposed to an off the shelf solution
The operation of trade agreements are best left to the technocrats as political intervention has proved disruptive more often than it has been helpful. The EU-Britain-NI political and trade dynamic is as sensitive as it is complex and not one that can fit into an off the shelf package of trade rules. It requires a bespoke solution that reflects the historic trade patterns, designed to eliminate threat to the single market of the UK being a back door to the EU 27 for container loads but enable an NI consumer continue buying their favourite cheese in their local Sainsbury or Asda store.