A provision to protect trade across the Irish border in the Brexit ‘divorce deal’ could see UK farmers forced to obey EU rules with no say over how they are made.
In the deal, the UK promised to ‘maintain full alignment’ with the rules of the single market and customs union if the Irish border issue could not be settled in a trade agreement or by any other Ireland-specific means.
The decision to keep ‘full alignment’ as a fallback option was made despite the fact that the UK will lose its seat at the decision-making table as part of the Brexit process.
When the agreement – which did not have legal status – was reached, Farmers Guardian reported on the different interpretations of ‘full alignment’.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove suggested it meant common goals could be achieved through different regulatory means – making the agreement compatible with leaving the single market and the customs union – but others claimed it would mean remaining in both.
Now the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ is being worked into a legal treaty, this ambiguity will no longer hold, and the EU has reportedly warned British diplomats the union’s draft will keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market.
Speaking to journalists after a week of technical negotiations, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said he was still waiting for London to explain how it planned to avoid an Irish border if the UK were to leave the customs union – something the Government is keen to do so Britain can strike free trade deals with other countries across the world.
“The sooner the UK makes its choices, the better”, he added.
“A UK decision to leave the single market and customs union would make border checks unavoidable.”
Any move to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market would have huge implications for the whole of the UK, because the divorce deal also contained a guarantee that ‘no new regulatory barriers’ would be erected between Northern Ireland and the mainland.
This clause would make it very difficult for the rest of the UK to diverge from EU rules, because any divergence would be likely to create those regulatory barriers and disrupt trade.
NFU Brexit director Nick von Westenholz told Farmers Guardian he did not object to remaining in the customs union post-Brexit.
“The NFU accepts securing ongoing free trade between the EU and UK will mean UK farmers and growers continuing to observe some EU regulations. This is a fundamental aspect of international trade”, he said.
“However, we are looking very closely at areas where the UK can reform current EU regulations which are not central to the operation of the single market, so change can be made to improve the regulatory burden on farmers without impeding our ability to trade.”