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Three-month 'grace period' will mean Brexit agri-checks won't apply to foods sent to NI supermarkets

Yes, this is basically another Brexit extension.

Image: Photojoiner/Sutterstock

SUPERMARKETS are to get a three month ‘grace period’ from some Brexit-related checks on food and other goods sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland after 31 December, it has been confirmed.

This exemption will mean that health export certificates, which should be required on GB-to-NI agri-foods from 1 January, are not needed for “trusted” traders in NI.

Yesterday, an agreement was reached between British minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič about how the Withdrawal Agreement could be implemented in practice. 

Though the details of this deal have not been published yet, a statement by Michael Gove to the House of Commons this afternoon has given us some insight into what’s in store.

As part of that agreement “in principle”, the two sides decided on how Northern Ireland trade between Ireland and between Great Britain would work under the NI Protocol, which will come into effect from 31 December – deal or no deal.

In the House of Commons, Gove confirmed that there would be a “grace period” for supermarkets and traders “in order to make sure that they are ready for any health export certificate requirements”.

This was a major concern for politicians and retailers in Northern Ireland: last month, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill wrote to Šefčovič to raise concerns about the SPS checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland.

The leaders feared that post-Brexit checks on agri-foods coming from GB to NI would lead to “price increases and/or reduced choice” for customers.

The NI leaders said that representatives of the main supermarkets said there was a “real threat” to the “supply of existing food and other products” in Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

A corporate affairs manager for Asda NI said last month that the rules of trade for ‘mixed’ consignments, or trucks with a few different products in them, were complex and ”a special arrangement to avoid drowning in bureaucracy” was needed.

As the island of Ireland is viewed as one single epidemiological zone post-Brexit, SPS checks need to be carried out on animals and agriculture products travelling between the island of Ireland and Great Britain (meat and dairy, for example).

Key quotes from Michael Gove explaining this in the House of Commons

1. Chilled meats

Labour chair of the Westminster committee on the Future Relationship with the EU Hilary Benn said Gove’s announcement represents “a series of grace periods”.

Benn said: “It has been reported that food products coming from Great Britian to Northern Ireland will be exempt from export health certificates for a period of at least three months and chilled meats – sausages he referred to – will be allowed for a period of time, pending a review, after which they might be prevented any more from moving to Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

So what is going to happen after those dates, Benn asked. Michael Gove replied:

“We’ve been talking to traders, supermarkets in particular, in order to make sure that they are ready for any health export certificate requirements and we know that some supermarkets are already ready, one or two others need time in order to get ready.

They requested a grace period, originally the Commission argued that that would be impossible or if it did exist that it could only be a matter of weeks. We managed to secure three months which is sufficient time, we understand, in order to ensure that supermarkets are ready.

Michael Gove told MPs that the agreement prevents any disruption at the end of the transition period on the movement of chilled meats.

British sausages will continue to make their way to Belfast and Ballymena in the new year.

2. Free of all tariffs

Michael Gove said that businesses in Northern Ireland will be free of all tariffs.

He told MPs: “The deal safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory. As recently as July, the commission had envisaged a default tariff scenario in which, and I quote, ‘all goods brought into Northern Ireland would be considered to be at risk are as such subject to the common customs tariff’.

If that had been implemented, that would have raised the prospect of a 58% tariff on a pint of milk going from Scotland to a supermarket in Strabane, or 96% on a bag of sugar going from Liverpool to the shops of Belfast.

“As we’ve repeatedly made clear, this could never have been an acceptable outcome. So, I’m pleased to say that under the agreement that we’ve reached, Northern Ireland businesses selling to consumers or using goods in Northern Ireland will be free of all tariffs.

“Whether that’s Nissan cars from Sunderland or lamb from Montgomeryshire, internal UK trade will be protected as we promised whether we have a free trade agreement with the EU or not.”

3. No ‘mini’ EU embassy in the North

Gove also stressed again that the EU will not get a ‘mini embassy’ in Northern Ireland post-Brexit – a bone of contention between the two sides during trade talks.

He told MPs: “There’ll be no Belfast mini embassy or mission, as some in the EU originally sought, and the EU officials will not have any powers to carry out checks themselves.

“There will, instead, be sensible, practical arrangements – co-operation, reciprocal data-sharing – so that both sides can have confidence in these unique arrangements.”

Gove said the package means the Northern Ireland Protocol can be implemented in a “pragmatic and proportionate way” before confirming clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill which would have enabled UK ministers to over-ride the divorce deal would be dropped.

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He said: “Having put beyond doubt the primacy of the sovereignty of this place as we leave the EU, we rest safe in the knowledge that such provisions are no longer required.”

Trade talks rumble on

Gove and Šefčovič – co-chairs of the Joint-Committee that is examining how the divorce deal would be implemented – announced the breakthrough on the Protocol as trade talks reached a critical moment this week. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are to meet for dinner this evening to discuss trade negotiations.

The protocol is due to come into effect from the start of next year and is set to keep Northern Ireland in line with some EU regulations on the single market to allow an open border and free flow of goods and services across the island.

The debate over the protocol’s implementation has caused acrimony between the two sides, with the EU starting legal action over clauses in the Internal Market Bill which would have overridden parts of the Brexit agreement relating to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

But Gove told the Commons today that “such provisions are no longer required” and that they would be removed from the Bill.

He said the accord would spare the region from damaging tariffs that could have hiked supermarket prices, and said there would be no additional red tape applied on businesses in Northern Ireland.

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