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European Commission negotiators have told the UK government they will seek to ease trade friction in Northern Ireland but that the UK must align on EU food, plant and environmental standards in return.

As well as doing away with inspections for food being moved into Northern Ireland, the ‘dynamic alignment’ of UK standards with those of the EU would reduce bureaucracy for trade across the Irish Sea. However, this has proved to be politically unacceptable to the UK, the Times reports.  

New Zealand-plus

Instead, the UK continues to push for a ‘New Zealand-plus’ model through which checks made on incoming food would be “proportionate to the risks identified and not more trade restrictive than necessary”. 

A UK government spokesperson said the EU already has a number of SPS and veterinary agreements with other ‘third countries’ based on equivalence, rather than dynamic alignment.

Export drag

The news comes as the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) released its annual exports report, revealing new post-transition rules and processes continue to drag the sector’s exports to the EU. 

Exports to the EU were down by 40% in February at £578.7m, compared with £1bn for the same period in 2020. Small companies are being hit the hardest, according to the FDF.

Key findings in the Santander-FDF report were:

  • In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic saw total food and drink exports fall 9.7% to £21.3bn
  • EU food and drink exports were down by 8% to £13bn, holding up slightly better than non-EU exports which declined by 12.1% to £8.3bn
  • Eight out of 10 of FDF members’ top markets are in Europe, including the top two of Ireland (£3.9bn) and France (£2bn)

Ian Wright, chief executive of the FDF, said 2020 had been particularly challenging for the sector with businesses focused on their own corporate survival and that of their suppliers and customers.

“That has involved mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on food supplies at exactly the same time as preparing for the end of the EU Exit Transition period, and dealing with the complexities and difficulties that have arisen as a result,” he said.

Nicki Hunt, the FDF director of membership and commercial engagement, predicted that EU border issues would continue to vex members well into 2022.

“Cautious producers have reined in their ambitions for exporting and January 2021’s export figures saw a drop of 75.5% compared to the same period last year. In January 2020, Ireland was our biggest market accounting for 18% of total food and drink exported. A year on, that has crashed to 5%.”

Call for government support

However, the FDF report struck a positive note in its foreword, written by Ian Wright.

“As the UK forges its new identity as an independent trading nation and looks to promote economic recovery, there remains significant headroom for growth for UK food and drink exports, both within the EU and further afield. Food and drink exports are a UK success story. They are prized around the world for their quality and provenance.”

Wright added that government needs to provide “longer-term export support – as recommended by the UK’s Trade and Agriculture Commission, industry members of the Food and Drink Sector Council and the FDF – to put in place the ‘bounce-back plan’ for agri-food and drink exporters”.