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The UK Government has launched new proposals to redraw the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed during Brexit negotiations to prevent a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. “We cannot go on as we are,” said Brexit minister Lord Frost.
The European Union has said it would not renegotiate the deal, though European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič has said the EU would “continue to engage” with the UK.
It comes as major supermarket chains warn of issues transporting goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Marks & Spencer has said it will cut Christmas products in Northern Ireland, and added that customers would face higher prices as checks on goods were “threatening” its business.
Small, independent food retailers and producers have also faced problems exporting and importing goods to and from Northern Ireland, as the added paperwork and health certificate requirements are increasing costs and causing delays in shipments.
Michael Bell, executive director of Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) told Speciality Food that the food industry had long warned that trade barriers would be “highly disruptive.”
“The new bureaucratic burdens imposed on businesses have proved disruptive, and consumers are already feeling the impact of this with reduced choice on supermarket shelves,” he continued. “If this situation continues, in the near future it will also mean increased cost and food waste.”
Leading supermarkets wrote a letter to Lord Frost and his European counterpart calling for urgent action to avoid trade disruption ahead of further checks being introduced when the current grace period ends in October. The letter says that “much more needs to be done before the end of September if there is not to be significant disruption to supply and an increase in cost for Northern Ireland consumers.”
The head of FSB Northern Ireland, Roger Pollen, also urged both sides to come to a swift agreement. “Solutions are available if the political will is there. With grace periods due to expire at the end of September, and small businesses struggling with customs complexity on a daily basis, there is an urgent need for discussions to deliver outcomes.”
According to the British Retail Consortium, possible solutions include a veterinary agreement, a wider Sanitary and Phytosanitary agreement, a facilitated movement scheme or a Trusted Trader scheme. Groups including The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) and the British Meat Processors Association have previously supported calls for a new veterinary agreement to ease trade delays between Great Britain, the EU and Northern Ireland.
NIFDA’s Michael said food and drink companies in Northern Ireland have four key priorities when it comes to fixing the protocol: “We want affordability, certainty, simplicity and stability. It is in the interests of all parties to minimise frictions in GB-NI trade, and to agree a lasting, sustainable trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union,” he said. “To achieve that, we need to see a new, collaborative approach between the Government and the European Commission.”