Richard North, 14/05/2017  

This was the week, according to the Irish Times that Ireland discovered it was on its own when it comes to Brexit. The discovery came on the back of Michel Barnier's two-day visit to the Republic - snooping around the Northern Irish border, having previously been the first non-head of state or government ever to address both houses of the Irish Parliament.

And that brings Booker into the fray with this week's column, noting that the Irish border question - the need to keep a "soft border" between Ireland and the North - is one of the three items at the top of Barnier's agenda for the Brexit talks, along with the rights of EU citizens in the UK and that "divorce bill".

In a piece headed: "'Hard borders' post-Brexit will make red tape even worse" (not Booker's choice of headline), he writes that many of us voted to leave the EU to free us from the suffocating thickets of EU bureaucracy. We little realised, he says, that outside the EU we might find it even worse than when we were in.

And it is very evident that Barnier knows that this is a massive conundrum. As he made clear to the Irish MPs, Britain's decision to leave both the Single Market and the European Economic Area (EEA) means that the UK automatically becomes what the EU calls a "third country"; which in turn means the re-imposing border controls.

This was always going to present some problems, as even between Norway and Sweden (with both countries in the EEA), there are some border controls, but remaining in the EEA would have reduced them to a tolerable minimum.

It was on the assumption that we would remain in the Single Market that, in April last year we were able to write two pieces (here and here) suggesting that the residual problems could largely be overcome by the intelligent use of technology, with a variety of stratagems and devices which would reduce, if not eliminate, border checks.

However, with Mrs May having decided that we would leave the Single Market, she has opened up a raft of problems that were best avoided – problems which will have a significant impact on all our trade with the EU.

But, writes Booker, whatever problems this may create elsewhere in the EU, they are particularly acute in Ireland, because the two parts of that island, not least their economies, are so closely intermeshed.

For some idea of what this means, we could start by looking at the cross-border trade in what are called "products of animal origin", accounting for a significant part of total trade on both sides of the border.

These range from the 10,000 pigs and 1,000 cattle which cross the border each week in both directions, for slaughtering and processing, to the huge quantities of milk, cheese, butter and other dairy products which, also for processing, may cross the border up to five times before being sold on the retail market.

All these movements, post-Brexit, will become subject to EU Regulation 2016/429, laying down the five-stage requirements whereby any "third country" can export such products into the EU market.

The point which many seem to miss is that these stages apply on to "third countries" and therefore will apply to the UK when it leaves the EU. As we drop out of membership, the ability to export to the EU is not automatic. Firstly, the UK will have formally to apply to the European Commission to be designated as an "approved country" in order to be listed on the relevant databases.

Then, each individual business wishing to export has to be inspected and certified as an "approved establishment". These procedures alone could take months to complete and only then are the businesses allocated an official "establishment number", which must be marked on all goods exported to the EU.

As it stands, all food manufacturers and processors are already awarded establishment numbers, under Single Market provisions. It is possible that the EU will agree to carry over the approvals, post-Brexit. But this is unlikely to happen unless the UK agrees to enforce EU law in these establishments, and apply any new rules that are made. Attempts to "deregulate" could result in establishments being delisted.

Thirdly all products, including live animals, must be certified as compliant with the EU's animal health requirements and all other relevant regulation. This goes beyond merely being produced in approved establishments. The operational procedures under which goods are produced (or animals kept) must conform with current EU rules.

Fourthly, goods must then be accompanied by certificates and other relevant documentation required by EU export regulations. This can mean having to obtain veterinary certificates from "official veterinarians", or certificates of conformity from the relevant enforcement officials.

Then, finally, such goods may only enter into circulation in the EU via a a "Border Inspection Post" (now renamed Border Control Post), where they are subject to a series of checks.

These may be as straightforward as a simple documentation check, ensuring that all the relevant certificates have been provided. But they can include load verification – physical checks of vehicle or container content, to ascertain whether they match the descriptions on the documents.

Checks can also extend to opening packaging, to verify that contents conform with the labelling, and goods may be physically inspected to ensure that they comply with quality and marketing regulations. Samples may also be taken, which can be sent away for testing, for such things as the presence of microbiological contamination, or pesticide residues.

The time taken may vary from a few hours or, where samples are taken for testing, several days or even a week, But only when they have passed the checks and been certified as suitable for free circulation can they finally be presented to customs for admission to the EU.

None of this of course applies to our present borderless trade within the EU, which is one reason why so few businesses either in Britain or Ireland are yet aware of it. But outside the EU/EEA, there are no exceptions. Even countries which have free trade agreements with the EU still have to go through the hoops.

Not the least problems with the Irish Republic is that there are only three EU Border Inspection Posts in the country: two in Dublin, the other at Shannon Airport. To avoid having to divert food consignments to these places, tens of millions of pounds would have to be spent on building and staffing new facilities, and even then it would not be possible to cover every single crossing along the 300-mile border.

As for live animals, we have already reported that Ireland's racing industry fears the implications of all this for trainers and breeders wishing to bring their horses back into the EU from Cheltenham or Newmarket.

But other bureaucratic hurdles will await many other cross-border exports, such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals and all that vast range of products which require a "CE mark" (for Conformité Européene), some of which can only be granted by a "notified body" based in the EU.

The most public warning so far has come from the chief economist of the Irish Central Bank, who claimed that a "hard border" could in coming years cost "40,000 jobs" in southern Ireland alone.

Barnier may blithely hope that he can arrange some "special case" deal with the UK, to ensure a "soft border", minimising all this bureaucracy. But here they could find they are falling foul of WTO rules which prohibit discrimination between third countries.

And already we are hearing from EU politicians, such as Manfred Weber last week, the leader of the largest group in the European Parliament, that no such "cherry picking" can be allowed, because it might encourage other EU members to follow our lead by leaving as well.

But one crucial question Booker asks is whther Mr Barnier and his UK counterparts have actually read Regulation 2016/429. Are they really aware of what they are taking on? The probabilities are that officials at all levels have failed to understand the implications of their own rules.

The learning curve that our own officials are having to surmount may well have to extend to the higher reaches of Brussels officialdom, for Barnier to realise that there is no way of maintaining the integrity of the Single Market, as he demands, while also permitting a "soft border" with Northern Ireland.

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