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“Mutual recognition” at borders could help facilitate post-Brexit trade

Published:  05 December, 2017

Brexit talks floundered once again yesterday as PM Theresa May was forced to pull out of a deal with Brussels following a row with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over the status of the Irish border.

Getting the support of the DUP is crucial for May, who – following on from June’s snap election – needs the votes of its 10 MPs to gain a majority in the House of Commons.

While ministers battle it out over whether NI will diverge from the rest of the UK by remaining in the EU's customs union and single market – something the DUP has objected to – or whether it will follow the same regulations as the rest of the UK, the wine and spirits industry have been meeting with ministers to discuss border controls and how the government plans to facilitate trade post-Brexit.

Last week’s meeting organised by the WSTA, where members of the trade were given the opportunity to quiz Defra Food and Drink Minister George Eustice, threw up several concerns surrounding the continuity of imports and exports between the UK and the EU and how the government plans to spend the £3 billion put aside by Hammond in last month’s budget to support the UK’s SMEs.

Eustice noted that the £3 billion includes consideration to replace IT systems which would be needed if the UK government fails to reach a deal with Brussels.

In this ‘no deal’ scenario, Britain would be free to decide what checks were required.

Eustice said the government is considering taking a ‘risk-based approach’ to border checks.

As to whether the EU would reciprocate, “mutual recognition” would be in their best interests he said, as it would create “a lot of work at the other end” if they didn’t.

Changes to customs controls and the issues of staffing at ports was raised by a UK-based logistics company, while a major UK retailer also raised the issue of how companies could make themselves risk-free in order not to encounter additional obstacles at borders.

Eustice aimed to allay concerns by predicting that a period of stability is on the horizon for mid-2019 to 2021, once the terms of the transition period is put in place.

“We will probably know by the middle of next year whether we’ve got a tentative agreement to a transition period and an outline of a free trade agreement,” he said.

May has taken several anticlimactic trips to Brussels in recent months, the most recent of which occurred yesterday which ended in the PM breaking off talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker to speak to DUP leader Arlene Foster.

The status of the Irish border is one of three “divorce” issues which need to be settled before a deal on post-Brexit trade relations can be made – the other two being rights for citizens and the amount of money the UK will pay when it leaves Europe in 2019.

Despite plenty of political toing and froing, Eustice says the government is focused on minimising “unnecessary barriers to trade”.

He said the UK could develop frameworks and principles to recognise UK/EU laws as other non-EU member countries currently do.

In the UK’s case, it would be able to set standards and in areas such as labelling and food safety laws, there may be a space for the UK and EU to have a shared evidence base, he said.