Leading agribusiness voice Declan Billington does not believe that the securing of a free trade deal between the UK and Brussels represents a ‘get-out-of-jail free’ card when it comes to sorting out agri-trade issues on the island of Ireland, and beyond, in a post-Brexit scenario.
“Currently, all goods manufactured here in Northern Ireland using components imported from countries beyond the European Union can be moved without hinderance within the single market. Yes, there is a tariff to be paid when raw materials are initially brought into Europe. But that’s it.
“Once we leave the European Union, this state-of-affairs changes significantly. Current EU legislation prohibits the free movement of many goods manufactured using raw materials sourced in other regions, despite the country selling the final product having a free trade deal with Europe.
“Potentially, Northern Ireland’s animal feed compounding sector will be very exposed in this regard. The industry imports a high percentage of the raw materials it uses from countries outside Europe. South America, for example, exports a high percentage of the corn and soya used by local feed manufacturers.
“So, the question is: How will these raw materials be considered by Brussels, once Brexit takes effect?”
Billington believes that Northern Ireland’s agri-food sectors need a ‘Plan B’, in the event of London and Brussels not agreeing a free trade deal as part of the final Brexit package.
“The current political vacuum in Northern Ireland is doing us no favours at all. As I understand it officials in the Northern Ireland Office, the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department of Food and Rural Affairs are working on bespoke strategies to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, whatever the out-working of the final Brexit measures.
“This principle was promised as part of the agreement reached between the London and Brussels before Christmas. The attainment of a comprehensive free trade deal has been flagged up as the most effective way of ensuring this requirement is met.
“However, officials in London are working on a back-up arrangement that will come into play, should this turn out not to be the case. It is, therefore, vitally important that all of the agri-food trading bodies in Northern Ireland should have clear and direct access to these officials.”
Billington confirms that Anderson Consulting had been commissioned by a group of Northern Ireland agri-trade groupings to come up with recommendations that would address the logistics of securing a frictionless border, where trade is concerned, in the event of a comprehensive free trade deal not featuring within the final Brexit arrangements.
The commissioning group includes NIFDA, the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA) the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA) and Dairy UK (Northern Ireland).
“The work will be completed over the coming weeks, after which its recommendations will be fed into the Brexit policy development groupings in London.”
The Andersons’ team will be looking at a core number of issues including customs’ checks plus Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures.
“These aspects of trade are critically important to the food and farming sectors. Research has confirmed that 142 cross-border activities will be negatively impacted in the event of a hard Brexit.
“The securing of a comprehensive trade deal between the UK and the European Union should not be regarded as a given.
“Under these circumstances, Northern Ireland’s agri-trade bodies must act in their own interests and come up with a back-up plan that helps secure their long-term survival in the wake of the wrong Brexit deal becoming a reality.”
Declan Billington is the CEO of Thompsons and chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Association (NIFDA). Previously he has chaired CBI Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association.