This article is part of our special report (Agri-food) life after Brexit.
The EU and UK may have finally ratified their trade deal, but question marks remain over how the two partners will align their phytosanitary regulation, which is causing a considerable headache for the agrifood sector.
Almost five years after the Brexit vote, EU lawmakers this week endorsed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that now governs economic relations between the UK and the bloc, while EU-27 ministers on Thursday (29 April) agreed their position on a four-year Brexit Adjustment Reserve.
While the ratification of the trade deal has come as welcome relief, the issue of phytosanitary checks remains a thorny issue.
According to its recently released annual exports report, the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) concluded that post-transition rules and processes continue to cause a headache for the sector’s exports to the EU.
In fact, food and drink exports have been among the worst hit by the new rules, with exports down 40% year-on-year for February.
Meanwhile, a committee of cross-party MPs from the UK’s department of environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) released a report on Thursday, which highlighted that “considerable trade friction” had emerged for the sector, particularly firms exporting seafood and meat. It adds that businesses faced “substantive and enduring” new costs.
In recent weeks, the two sides have been in talks over the issue without much success.
EU sources suggested that by aligning its sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards for agrifood and plant products with that of the bloc, the UK could significantly reduce bureaucracy.
However, the UK government continues to reject the idea as politically unacceptable to the UK, according to The Times.
Instead, it continues to push for a ‘New Zealand-plus’ model through which checks made on incoming food would be proportionate to the risks identified.
Warning of the wide ranging ramifications of this mismatch, the agrifood sector is urging the EU and UK to take a “pragmatic approach” on the issue.
“We need to get to a set of solutions, which I think is doable, that protect the integrity of Europe, but at the same time put in place pragmatic solutions, which don’t undermine either jurisdiction,” said Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink association (NIFDA).
Risk-based approach mixed up in politics
Highlighting that Brexit has disproportionately disrupted the careful equilibrium of the “eating ecosystem” developed over the past 40 years, Bell pointed out that the UK is not a homogenous entity.
Instead, Northern Ireland stands to be one of the hardest hit as it exports 75% of its agrifood products, and the sector represents the largest industry in the country.
“We need frictionless trade for Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’ve actually got, despite being promised it,” he said.
Stressing that a risk-based approach has got “mixed up in politics,” Bell said that the EU and UK governments need to “think very carefully about the consequences of making food more expensive, reducing consumer choice, and driving food waste”.
No time to lose
“Every month there are more problems. And they’re not small problems,” Bell said, warning that unless politicians are prepared to establish some flexibility, he does not foresee a stable solution.
“We need the protocol to be affordable, stable, simple, and clear. Unfortunately, we haven’t got any of those at the minute”.
Given that the grace period for the current arrangements ends in October, NIFDA’s Bell warned that time is of the essence.
“They’re playing with fire politically,” he said.
Paul Kelly, director at Food Drink Ireland, told EURACTIV that food and drink companies face “substantial non-tariff barriers” to trade between Ireland and other member states and Great Britain with customs, SPS and other food safety requirements.
This is leading to “substantial ongoing costs which will have to be absorbed not just by the food supply chain but by consumers as well,” he said.
“Reaching agreement on measures to ease and facilitate customs and SPS requirements should now be a priority for both sides,” Kelly stressed, adding that the TCA’s specialised committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures should be “activated as quickly as possible”.
“Proactively engaging on these issues is the only way to reduce trade friction from SPS measures and limit the costs passed onto the food chain and the consumer”.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a Commission official said that the EU’s SPS implementing legislation is constantly being adapted to take into account the latest developments.
[Gerardo Fortuna contributed to this reporting]