by Frank Schnittger
Sun Dec 6th, 2020 at 01:27:36 PM EST
This is the story of Daisy, the Brexit Cow. She lives on a farm in Monaghan but her milk is transported for processing to Fermanagh, from where it is transported to consumers in England via the Belfast Liverpool ferry. So far she has been unaffected by any proposed Brexit changes because her produce is regarded as British and will not be subject to any tariffs or border quality checks.
However next year Daisy will have a calf which may be processed for beef in either North or south Ireland. She may be fattened for a few weeks on a farm in N. Ireland prior to slaughter, so does this make her a N. Ireland calf, and will it matter whether she is processed in the North or south of Ireland and then sold on the British market?
Northern Ireland has insufficient meat and dairy processing plants to meet the demands of the British market - or will those demands be met by beef from Brazil or Argentina instead? 50% WTO tariffs on beef mean that meat prices in the UK will go up dramatically unless they have free trade agreements with at least some meat exporting countries.
Cattle in Ireland are generally sold at auction at cattle markets dotted throughout the country. Often Cattle not sold on day 1 may be put out to pasture at a farm near the market for a few days until the next market day comes along. Does that make them "British" if the market happens to be located in N. Ireland even if they spent most of their lives south of the border?
The UK government seems determined that there will be no controls on food products travelling from Northern Ireland to Britain. So what happens if the lorry transporting Daisy's milk (mixed with other cows milk) to Liverpool carries a back load of Tesco's finest produce to Belfast where it will be subject to rigorous EU checks to ensure it conforms to EU quality standards and that all tariffs due are paid?
Contrary to initial claims, the UK Internal Markets Bill does not deal with this issue. It is governed by the 63 page Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement signed last year, sealed by a UK general election result, and ratified by Westminster parliament last January. The precise practicalities of how its provisions will be implemented are still under discussion at the EU-UK Joint Committee on the implementation and application of the Withdrawal Agreement, co-chaired by Commission Vice-President Maro efčovič and Cabinet Office Minster, Michael Gove.
However the UK government has issued guidance notes as to how the protocol will effect exports. In summary:
Moving goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain should take place as it does now - there will be no additional process, paperwork, or restrictions on Northern Ireland goods moving to Great Britain, delivering unfettered access.
Changes for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be kept to an absolute minimum - with a new Trader Support Service, available to all traders at no cost, to be established to provide wraparound support, alongside guidance on the processes for food and agricultural products designed to uphold the longstanding status of the island of Ireland as a single epidemiological unit.
Trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and EU Member States, will continue unaffected, with no change at the border, no new paperwork, and no tariffs or regulatory checks.
For trade with the rest of the world, Northern Ireland will benefit from UK FTAs - ensuring the benefits of those agreements are felt right across the United Kingdom.
Sounds like N. Ireland will have the best of both worlds benefiting from both access to the Single Market and the UK market and any FTAs the UK government might negotiate. But as usual, the devil is in the detail: the phrase "Changes for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be kept to an absolute minimum hides the hotly contested issue of exactly what customs and other controls will operate "down the Irish sea" on transshipments from Liverpool to Belfast which may contain goods originating in third countries.
The UK has already objected to the EU opening an office in Belfast to oversee these controls, despite the fact that the EU Commission already has an office there, and the US and China maintain consulates there. In practice, all the EU are asking for is "sufficient and proportional oversight." and this could be operated from the Commission offices if required.
It is probably in everyone's interest to ensure that any enforcement procedures are operated as unobtrusively as possible. As noted in the UK government policy paper
The Protocol is not codified as a permanent solution: it is designed to address a particular set of problems in a way that upholds the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and ensures the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole. It can do so only for as long as it has the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That is why it is for the elected institutions in Northern Ireland to decide what happens to the Protocol's alignment provisions in a consent vote that can take place every four years, with the first vote taking place in 2024. For as long as they are in force, the UK will give effect to them in a pragmatic and practical way that minimises the impact on individuals and businesses.
Despite the fact that N.Ireland has the best of all worlds in the protocol (thanks to robust Irish government and EU Commission negotiating) it would not be surprising if unionists voted against the continuance of the protocol on the purely ideological grounds that it treated N. Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, and imposed a barrier on goods moving from Britain to N. Ireland. Fortunately they are unlikely to have a majority in the N. I. assembly, going forward.
But if N. Ireland goods are to have free access to the Single Market, does not reciprocity demand that goods of at least part southern Ireland origin have free access to the UK market? In practice, British demands that there be no restrictions on goods moving from N. Ireland to Britain would appear to facilitate this, provided they are routed through N. Ireland. But how will the UK prevent goods of other EU member states slipping into the UK via the Belfast back door? They appear to have no plan to do so.
In general, UK government policy seems predicated on the notion that a FTA will be agreed between the UK and EU. However in the absence of such a deal there could be a one way route for goods of Irish and EU origin to slip into the UK via Belfast. If the UK wants to make tariff free trade two way, they have no option but to agree an FTA deal.
In the meantime, and without a deal, there seems little to prevent Daisy and her co-herds wandering the fields and roads between Ireland and N. Ireland and passing themselves off as Irish or British as desired. Closing or policing 300 cross border roads along the 500km land border is not a workable solution, especially when so many farms straddle the border itself. Depending on the outcome of the FTA negotiations, some of those farms could become very valuable property indeed.