The British meat trade and livestock producers will be mightily relieved by the news that the date for the implementation of the new trade arrangements with the EU has been conveniently kicked onwards for a further 21 months. The agreement means that meat imports and exports will endure on their current legal basis of frictionless trade until December 2020.
Both sides accept that negotiations on the new arrangements will continue for the interim period and that practical steps for implementation will require this additional time. But one has to have some sympathy with the views expressed by the British Food and Drink Federation who commented that 21 months may not be enough for companies to adjust, particularly as one does not know how much adjustment will be needed.
There is no further clarity on the Irish question – I relish the banter that when the English find the answer to the Irish question, the Irish change the question! On the positive side, the still incomplete 129-page long leaving document clearly states that sanitary, production and marketing standards for animal products will remain the same on both sides of the border and will allow the continuation of the important cross-border trade.
Of course, most of the concessions have come the British side of the negotiating table. For the next 21 months, British meat producers and processors must accept new European legislation without being able to influence it. In practice, this should not be an issue as the EU legislative agenda regarding animal products is light until the end of 2020, with the possible exception of new rules for livestock transport.
The important written opinion of 7 March of the European Council, the instance representing the EU-27 governments, shows glimpses of the end-game. On a very welcome note for British meat exporters, potentially exposed to punishing tariffs, the draft guidelines clearly state that no tariff should apply to the trade of goods between the UK and the EU, an opinion also expressed from the British side.
The document talks of a new Free Trade Agreement but dismisses frictionless trade, meaning the return of veterinary and other controls at borders’ posts. Will the staff required for meat inspections be recruited, trained and accommodated in Dover and Calais by December 2020? This is a tall order.