Looming deadlines focus UK minds on SPS agreements

Pressure is mounting on the UK government to find ways of easing the problems which traders of agri-food products in particular are facing at the EU-UK border.

The question is becoming an increasingly urgent one as a UK ‘grace period’ exempting traders from key UK sanitary and phytosanitary measures is due to expire on 1 April, exposing EU exporters to the full force of UK border restrictions for the first time. Britain chose not to require SPS measures such as export health certificates for imports of livestock-based products straight away after it left the EU single market on 1 January, in the interests of minimising the risk of disruption to imported food supplies. But these exemptions are now set to expire in a matter of weeks – and this will re-adjust the ‘balance of pain’ over EU-UK trade friction. Until now, this has largely been experienced primarily by UK businesses encountering problems in exporting to the EU.

EU fruit and veg exporters ask for derogation extension

On Tuesday (16 February), the European Fresh Produce Association wrote to UK cabinet office minister Michael Gove – at that point still the minister in charge of EU-UK relations – requesting an extension to the existing derogation which exempts EU fruit and vegetable exporters from the need to obtain phytosanitary certificates. “The sector is already facing additional annual costs of at least €55 million as a result of the adaptation to new administration, customs and trading processes,” the Association said in its letter. “From 1 April, the cost of official inspections and of the issuance of over 750,000 phytosanitary certificates will be added to this economic and administrative burden, a threat which may significantly hamper the capacity of the industry to continue ‘just in time’ operations of highly perishable produce,” it added.

Northern Ireland facing SPS deadline

In the unique circumstance of Northern Ireland, the problems and the deadlines are the same – although in this case, it is trade flowing out of mainland UK which is the source of anxiety. At the start of this year, the region was granted a three-month grace period in which SPS certificates on movements of products of animal origin from Great Britain to Northern Ireland were not needed. But as things stand, this paperwork will become mandatory as from 1 April – reflecting Northern Ireland’s position as being de facto within the EU single market.

The London government has already asked the Commission for an extension of this grace period, from three months to two years – a request which has been rejected by the Commission as it stands. However, the question will inevitably resurface at a key meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee on Northern Ireland scheduled for next week.

Options for a EU-UK SPS agreement

And increasingly, attention is shifting to options for a ’permanent’ settlement to facilitate trade in agri-food products. Commission vice-president Maroŝ Šefčovič said in an interview last weekend with Irish broadcaster RTÉ that the EU was open to some kind of EU-UK SPS agreement to reduce the requirement for border checks. The Commission would keep the idea “on the table” as part of ongoing EU-UK discussions, Šefčovič  said. During the negotiations leading up to last year’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK had initially asked the EU for a mutual recognition agreement which would effectively acknowledge the UK’s animal and plant health regime as offering equivalent protection to the EU’s own systems. Given the UK’s determination not to be bound by EU rules, however, this was never going to be acceptable to the EU – and the UK duly left the EU single market with no specific rules in place.

Now Northern Ireland’s centrist Alliance Party is leading the demands for Britain to negotiate a UK-EU SPS agreement, similar to the veterinary agreement between the EU and New Zealand.

Is such an agreement feasible?

“The UK needs to understand that full equivalence such as Britain enjoyed inside the Single Market is not on the table,” said Emily Rees, managing director of Trade Strategies, a trade and regulatory advisory consultancy. “The EU-NZ veterinary agreement consists of a series of decisions taken over time. It’s not a piece of paper that says, ‘let’s have full equivalence’,” she added.

Rees stressed that international SPS agreements addressed specific problems and facilitated specific trade flows. “So until you understand what your sensitivities and offensive interests are, you can’t act. The UK has got to get more precise with its asks,” she advised.

February 2021

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