Richard North, 06/03/2021  

Yesterday was day three of "dump the protocol". Day one was supermarkets, day two parcels and now the government is modifying its guidance on plant exports, to cover moving agricultural and forestry machinery and growing media from GB to NI.

The existing text still stands, with a copy-out of Annex VII of Regulation (EU) 2019/2072, banning the export of soil, and restricting the growing media which can be used. But now a new passage has been inserted (pictured above), headed: "Temporary operational measures for movement of some goods from GB to NI".

First to report it was John Campbell, the Northern Ireland Economics and Business Editor. He later wrote a piece announcing: "Government relaxes more trade rules between GB and NI", and confirming that the move was taken " without the agreement of the EU".

What is specifically involved is permission for traders to move used agricultural and forestry machinery without the need for a phytosanitary certificate, providing they have been washed to remove excessive soil and plant debris. This, the guidelines explain, means that machinery can still be moved if small amounts of soil remain.

As to growing media, bulbs or vegetables that have been grown in soil can be sent from GB to NI even if they still have soil attached. Furthermore, plants can be moved to NI with soil and other growing media attached, provided they are from an authorised business meeting GB plant passporting requirements for soil.

Although it might not be immediately apparent to some, there is a qualitative difference between yesterday's measures and those from the previous days. The first two sets involved an extension of the "period of grace", intended to end on 1 April but now delayed until 1 October.

This set is different in that it deliberately sets aside a provision on Union law listed in Annex 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which the UK government has agreed should apply to Northern Ireland, by virtue of Article 5(4). The specific instrument suspended is Regulation (EU) 2016/2031, as implemented by Regulation (EU) 2019/2072.

The UK government states that this is a "temporary operational measure", but unlike the "period of grace" extension, it does not point to an end date. Nor is there any indication of what might replace the suspension, or whether there is an intention to renegotiate the application of this provision.

As such, yesterday's measures are in a different league to the previous "period of grace" extensions, and more clearly a breach of the Protocol. I don't see the argument that it is "temporary" cutting much ice, and especially as there is no end date identified.

One might, therefore, have expected to see fairly prominent media reporting – which might have been the case in an alternate universe where the royal soap opera didn't dominate the news.

But, in terms of substantive reports, apart from the BBC website, all I can see (at the time of writing) is a self-important report in Politico, grandly proclaiming that the UK's Northern Ireland Office had "confirmed Friday to POLITICO that, with immediate effect, many products containing soil are being cleared for shipment once again from suppliers in Britain".

As with others, the site wrongly attributes the EU measures to the single market, stating, "Another day, another unilateral British move to pull away from EU single market rules involving Northern Ireland". No media reporter, as yet, has picked up the qualitative difference in the measures.

Despite what amounts to the clearest breach so far of the Protocol, Downing Street is still playing silly buggers. Of yesterday's measures, a government spokesman said: "These temporary, practical arrangements recognise the need to ensure biosecurity on the island of Ireland is not compromised whilst addressing barriers which stop goods moving into Northern Ireland".

Meanwhile, the incredible Liz Truss claims that the UK is "absolutely not" trying to provoke a row with the EU over post-Brexit border arrangements.

At least this gets close to matching the fabled insouciance of Jacques L'Escroc Chirac. This was the man of whom it was once said that he could steal a pot of jam and when challenged - with his fingers still in the jar and the booty smeared on his lips - could look you in the eyes and say, without a blush: "Moi, monsieur? But I don't eat jam." Perhaps, after all, the Conservatives have learnt something from our membership of the EU.

However, while this is disturbing enough, in some senses one is even more disturbed by the response to yesterday's news of James Barnes, chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA).

Predictably, he welcomes the news, saying that is association had been raising this issue with government for the past five months. That says so much when the EU's plant health provisions were almost certain to apply regardless of any trade deal, a likelihood that must have been obvious since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017 – better than four years ago.

Barnes goes on to say that, while these temporary measures "will allow GB businesses to send their stock to Northern Ireland for this season", a permanent solution needs to be found on this along with changes to the restrictions on prohibited species and seed potatoes, which still remain in place.

He then adds: "This easement only applies to Northern Ireland. The UK and EU need to start coming to some firm and pragmatic decisions to change the current restrictive plant health regime on all trade between the UK and EU".

Given though, that the UK has just unilaterally abrogated a provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol, this is hardly conducive to a happy meeting of minds, where the EU will agree to lift plant health restrictions which apply to every other third country in the world including Efta/EEA countries, allowing one exception for landlocked Switzerland.

That Barnes also thinks that some sort of deal can be reached "on all trade between the UK and EU" lies in the realm of what some might consider to be wildly optimistic, even to the extent of being sustained by unicorn milk.

And yet, Barnes is not out on his own. His demeanour is common to that of many other trade body leaders who still have not come to terms with Brexit and the nature of Johnson's bodged deals. But in the case of plant health, even EEA membership would have been to little avail.

For once, just once, it would be helpful to see some realism. As an island state, the UK is in an excellent position to develop its already high disease-free status, ready to become a reservoir of healthy replacement plants, servicing areas which find it harder to exclude disease.

But this yearning for a past gone, that is never to be recovered, smacks of a morbid lack of realism which bodes no good for an industry which has yet to come to terms with Johnson's dowry. Yesterday was as good as it gets, and from hereon, it can only get worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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