By Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium
Recently CEOs from the UK’s leading supermarkets wrote to Lord Frost and EU Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, outlining their concerns over grocery choice and affordability in Northern Ireland after new checks and controls are set to be introduced from October.
On Wednesday in Parliament, Lord Frost and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set out their vision for removing friction GB-NI in a new command paper. So why wasn’t the retail industry celebrating?
Well, we did see some good in the Command Paper. It is clear that the UK government has listened to the retail industry with regard to those checks, controls and certificates that are due to come in for goods moving from GB to NI. They recognise the friction, and they recognise the associated costs that will come with it – costs that neither the retail industry nor NI households, with half of the discretionary income of GB households, can afford.
Particularly helpful is that the UK government have put a request to the EU for a ‘standstill’ of existing arrangements and grace periods. This is meant to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ when the existing grace periods ends, whilst both sides have on-going discussions to agree longer term solutions. This would mean no change to existing customs and regulatory requirements for the duration of the standstill.
The main thrust of the UK proposals is to focus more on final destination of goods that are actually at risk of entering the EU. Therefore, they propose changes on the basis of how the ‘at risk’ tests would work for good moving from GB into NI and offer greater flexibility around UK origin goods that sent to NI as end destination. This would not change the current requirements around EU origin goods moving through GB and on to NI.
To do this, the UK wants to focus on supply chain information, through a trusted trader scheme, and a light touch registration scheme. This would be available to established British businesses and would be a lot more flexible than the current established UK Trader Scheme.
The UK government ambition would try to avoid requirements for NI establishments to register on the scheme and this would also cover the movement of parcels.
However, there is a but, and it is a huge but. The UK government has listened to the problems facing retailers and the aims of what they are seeking to do are laudable, but any solution that is not agreed by both sides cannot provide the certainty and stability that retailers and Northern Ireland consumers need.
The UK government are seeking to renegotiate significant parts of the Protocol in respect of Customs and regulatory requirements in particular. For the EU, there is no appetite for renegotiation.
But even if they did, there are things in this command paper that are simply unpalatable to the EU like the proposed removal of the European Court of Justice jurisdiction from Single Market matters in Northern Ireland, which doesn’t happen anywhere else that the Single Market is in force and is one of the reasons why some of the member states signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
So, there are some good ideas in the Command Paper, but they are only workable if they can be agreed.
Northern Ireland is in a unique situation which requires a unique solution with the backing of both the UK and EU. There is a real urgency now to deliver an agreed solution that works for consumers.
It is hugely difficult for businesses to plan for the future or invest if there is no stability. We need both sides to make further progress to allow us to continue to give NI households the choice and affordability they require.
We in business can see solutions such as a trusted trader scheme or a veterinary agreement; we now need to see the political will to deliver them.