Red tape on imports to NI is set to snowball from January 1, writes Barry White
If you thought you’d seen the worst of the Brexit upheavals to shopping and business, think again. Next year they are due to get worse, much worse.
I’ve just been talking to the owner of a small Ulster business who imports cheese from Britain and the EU, and if he has to obey the future regulations required for transporting animal-based products from a non-EU country like Britain, he’ll quit.
“It would not be worth it, trying to answer questions on forms that no one can answer,” he said. “I’d be asked to provide in advance not only the registration number of the lorry that’s carrying my order, but the time of the ferry. The transport companies won’t know and, even if they did, any delay could mean the cheese was unsaleable.”
The good news, however, is that despite the threats that either Boris Johnson’s oven-ready deal is fully implemented next year, or that the UK finally uses the get-out clause, Article 16, neither may happen.
Already the Government has unilaterally decided on an indefinite grace period, allowing businesses to claim “not at risk” status for goods consumed only in Northern Ireland, and it looks as if the marathon talks between David Frost and Maros Sefcovic will run into 2022.
The Union-challenging Protocol was Johnson’s solution to the necessity for a trade border between the UK and the EU, which would leave the Irish border open and protect the single European market from lower-standard imports.
No tariffs are charged, but the paperwork to prove the origins of goods is about to multiply in separate instalments, starting from January 1.
While the emphasis here is on the Protocol and its disputed effect on politics and the economy, it is only part of the changing Brexit scene, with the Government warning of new regulations applying from the New Year.
There are few hold-ups at British ports today, as import declarations can be delayed for six months, but from January goods will not be released until the paperwork and checks are complete.
These hurdles have made trading more difficult, expensive and risky, so that half of UK businesses have cut back, or ceased trading with the EU. It is reckoned only 25% of UK firms are ready for the changes, while the EU has had a year of waiting.
Small importers here of animal-based perishables have found their own answer to import delays by flying in goods from GB, the source of most of their trade. But if this option disappears, and shipments can only come by ferry, the problems multiply.
My source added: “When Sefcovic says that the EU proposes banishing 80% of the checks at the ports, there will still be mountains of paperwork, as well as expensive veterinary checks.”
So, why does he not import his cheese from wholesalers in Dublin, free of red tape, rather than London? Because a kilo that he buys for £10 in Britain would cost him 22 euro in Ireland, where consumers expect to pay more.
One of the more ludicrous aspects of the Brexit regime is that a wheel of cheese can cross from Holland to GB without need of a veterinary certificate, but from GB to Northern Ireland it does, simply because it is being imported from a country, GB, outside the EU bloc.
One of the reasons for the grace period was a shortage of UK vets, with Marks and Spencer forced to employ 13 of its own.
While most businesses here are well informed about the intricacies of post-Brexit trade, wholesalers in Britain are not.
Many have simply cancelled their business with Northern Ireland, unaware that many rules they regard as “too much hard work” are so far not being applied.
Although Brexiteers hailed Johnson’s deal as world-beating, they omitted to mention customs charges on “at risk” goods which British officials collect and pass on to Brussels.
“Not at risk” goods pass tariff-free, provided the HRMC computer finds every question correctly answered, but in future even local Amazon orders could have extra forms and costs attached.
While the Government promised help with the rules, including eight categories of imports, the common experience is that “it has been as useful as a chocolate fireguard”. One importer remembers phoning the Traders Support Scheme to find it manned by a student on her holidays.
“She found an answer to my query, but almost instantly I was phoned to say it was wrong.”
So, what will likely happen to the Protocol, which allows Northern Ireland business to trade freely with both GB and EU, but leaves importers and exporters plagued with time and money-consuming forms?
Few believe the Government will use Article 16, whatever unionist politicians might want, to cancel its treaty obligations and restore unfettered free trade with GB.
That could open a damaging trade war, with the EU imposing new tariffs on British goods. For example, it could exact a high tax on British cars, which could put Nissan in the UK out of business.
No politician would lightly choose to take such a risk, or would want to further antagonise the Biden administration.
So far, business has muddled through the Protocol mess, finding temporary escape routes, but if the rules are to be strictly applied both politicians and businesses would face a moment of truth, with potentially drastic consequences.
Such a moment was the sight of empty shelves, early this year, which prompted the EU to soften its approach.
The likelihood is that a compromise will be found, because it has to be, with the EU conceding that Northern Ireland is even more of a special case, deserving unique arrangements, like Ukraine or Norway.
While many traders accept that the border must remain where it is, to preserve the Good Friday peace, they would like more support from Dublin for a light touch “green channel” for goods staying in Northern Ireland — which appears to have been Boris Johnson’s intention.
An unintended consequence of Brexit is that there is a chance that Northern Ireland will become poorer over time, depending on a diminished UK, and the Republic richer, enjoying its status as the only English-speaking EU member.
Business investment should hold up here, as we have a foot in both camps, but a more stable Ireland would be in a better place for growth in the long-term future.
All should be revealed, in 2022, when the talking has to stop and long-postponed decisions on trade must be taken.
But many are asking if there is any agreed solution to these Irish questions, in all their complexity, in the present form of Brexit.
** Barry White is a former chief leader writer and political columnist with the Belfast Telegraph