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Op ed Brexit transition

The tightening of international trade caused by protectionist policies around the world could not have come at a worse time. Compounding these worries in Ireland is the ever-present threat of a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020.

The first meeting of the Joint Committee overseeing the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement (including the Northern Ireland Protocol) took place in March. Michael Gove has denied that the Protocol requires additional checks on the Irish Sea between GB and Northern Ireland. In comments to a Westminster Committee he seemed to see the Joint Committee as a vehicle to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement.

By contrast, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has stated that, “In respect of the Irish Protocol the time for negotiation has passed. What is required is to implement the agreement through measures which are pragmatic and effective.

Generally, borders, quotas and tariffs slow down trade and seriously undermine ‘just-in-time’ supply chains of perishable products. Since the establishment of the WTO and the EU’s customs union Ireland has benefitted hugely from trade liberalisation. Last week’s European Movement survey showed 75% support in Ireland for EU Trade Policy.

In the International Trade committee of the European Parliament, we have been focusing very much on ways in which trade can be environmentally sustainable and coherent with EU values.

However, for today, all of our focus is on making sure supply chains remain supported and open during this crisis.

Some non-EU countries are considering restrictions on exports. There is no logic to this approach in circumstances where there is no scarcity of food whatsoever. Reports from around the globe suggest that crops are extremely healthy and a bumper harvest is forecast.

Paradoxically, Ireland has been preparing for severe interruptions to our food supply for some time albeit for completely different reasons. The continuing threat of a no-deal Brexit on 31st December 2020 has meant that suppliers and distributors have sought ways to build up inventory and additional warehouse space.

Modern supply chains reduce costs by avoiding delays and keeping storage times to a bare minimum. Where there is no need for storage there is limited storage space.

Disgracefully, we now face the threat that Brexit might happen in a disorderly fashion at the peak of the flu season next winter. It hardly bears thinking about. Could any politician in all conscience even allow for the possibility of a crash-out at such a time? For the UK Prime Minister to continue his posturing at this time is reckless at best and an act of outright hostility towards Ireland at worst.

That’s not even to mention the harm he seems to be prepared to visit upon his own population. Prof Tim Lang, an expert in food supply, says that the UK (even without a crash-out Brexit) is ‘facing a war-time scale of food challenge’.

If that wasn’t enough the UK’s own Office of Budget Responsibility last month (March) predicted that Brexit would reduce international trade over the next decade by 15%.

When I took up my seat in the European Parliament, I was determined to look at the UK not as a trading competitor but as a trading partner. I argued against punishing the UK for leaving the EU which was its democratic right. As the weeks have passed, this position is becoming less and less tenable.

The Protocol is clear that goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland will be considered to be at risk of onward movement to the EU unless it can be established that they will not be commercially processed in NI. In other words, the presumption is that tariffs will be payable. An excellent blog by Prof Stephen Weatherhill on this point is recommended.

UK insouciance on the Protocol will undoubtedly infect the negotiations on the future trading relationship putting everything at risk for an orderly exit in December. The Specialist Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol met for the first time this week. It is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate good faith and to foster the level of trust required to ensure that a deal can be reached.

A UK opinion poll suggests a majority of UK citizens want the Government to extend the transition period amid reports that no one in Whitehall is working on Brexit.

Ultimately the decision to seek an extension is one that the UK must arrive at by itself. Not only is it complicated by UK politics but it is also complicated by ongoing negotiations on the EU’s seven year budget which must be completed by the end of the year. But surely, COVID will help the UK Government to wriggle off the hook.

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