New Brexit Trade Checks Mean Old Brexiter Promises Have Officially Fallen Flat

Perhaps it's no surprise the government delayed introducing them five times.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak campaigned for Brexit
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak campaigned for Brexit

New Brexit checks for EU goods coming into Britain are about to come in – but why does that matter?

While we left the EU back in January 2020, the government has kicked the can down the road on this particular element of the exit deal for years now.

It means imported food will get more expensive and there could be shortages, contrary to the original Brexit promises, while importers may struggle with delays.

But, after five separate attempts to delay this legislation, the government is now having to make the checks a reality.

What are the new checks?

From January 31 2024, fresh products will face new border checks in the new Border Target Operating Model.

It will be introduced in three phases.

Firstly – from Wednesday – the EU exports of animal and plant products will have to present Export Health Certificates to British authorities.

It means importers will have to notify authorities a day before they get to the UK.

Right now, the EU does not need to notify the UK government before bringing in meat and dairy meaning it can arrive quickly.

Then physical checks on shipments will start from April 30, and from October 31, shipments will need to pass safety and security certificates.

What impact will these checks have?

Price increases

The price of imported food (particularly meat and dairy) will go up.

Director general of the Institute of Export and International Trade – Marco Forgione – told Reuters that large companies should be able to manage, but smaller companies may struggle to cope with the changes.

He added that small firms could then stop trading with the UK, leading to “price pressure and the possibility of scarcity”.

Some EU exporters are not ready to deal with this new amount of legislation and may not want to pay the extra costs of the trade checks.

Each consignment could cost between £20 and £43, and there are usually multiple on each lorry.

The total estimated cost of these costs is projected to be £330m per year – and any increased cost means food prices will go up, possibly triggering food inflation.

Display of fresh fruit and vegetables outside a shop on Edgware Road on 6th December 2023 in London, United Kingdom.
Display of fresh fruit and vegetables outside a shop on Edgware Road on 6th December 2023 in London, United Kingdom.
Mike Kemp via Getty Images

Delays and shortages

The EU actually imposed the same restrictions on British (GB) goods going into the bloc back in January 2021.

That sparked huge delays in ports and some UK exporters even stopped selling to the EU for the time being.

William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce warned that the delays will really be felt from April.

UK imports up to 70% of its fresh food from the EU in the winter months, declining to around 30% in warmer months, with as many as 1,000 trucks arriving each day at the ports.

Delays could therefore mean the shelf life of fresh food gets cut by a fifth.

SPS Certification working group, representing 30 trade bodies and covering £100billion of the UK’s food supply, described these new rules as “unfeasible”.

In a letter to the environment, food and rural affairs secretary Steve Barclay, the experts said this would seriously impact “just-in-time supply to GB of perishable short-shelf-life fresh foods/ingredients arriving from the EU”.

Vets in the EU also have to sign off on the produce – and there are fears there may not be enough of them to meet demand.

Confusion over how it will work

There’s a lack of transparency from the government, too, according to industry experts.

Bain told Reuters: “Will the government enforce by preventing material which doesn’t have an electronic EHC from entering the GB border? Or does it let stuff in and then simply enforce through contact with the companies involved afterwards?

“The government’s not telling us what they’re going to do.”

Others worry the UK does not have capacity.

The chair of the Horticultural Trades Association James Barnes saying there was a risk that the UK’s new border infrastructure, processes and IT systems would not be ready for April.

The Dutch Association of Wholesalers in Floricultural Products also called for a delay in the UK border checks until 2025, but this was ignored.

The start date is just 13 weeks away, but the government is yet to publish details of the opening hours of its border posts.

Is this what we were promised?

Not exactly.

As BBC Newsnight’s Victoria Derbyshire pointed out, prominent Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg promised there would be cheaper food, and ex-PM Boris Johnson promised there would be no extra trade checks – but “both were wrong”.

Rees-Mogg even called introducing such checks an “act of self-harm” in 2022 when he was the Brexit opportunities minister.

Why are they now being introduced?

The government delayed it to avoid port disruption and to prevent exacerbating the cost of living crisis.

But they are now being introduced because of bio-hazards, warning about the impact of the outbreak of diseases like foot and mouth, according to Newsnight’s coverage.

These checks will also help to maintain competitiveness between the UK and their EU counterpart, considering the bloc unveiled such checks shortly after the UK actually left the bloc.

How has the government responded?

The government claims everything is on track to be ready by April and that there won’t be any delays.

According to The Guardian, a government spokesperson said: “We remain committed to delivering the most advanced border in the world.

“The border target operating model is key to delivering this, protecting the UK’s biosecurity from potentially harmful pests and diseases, and maintaining trust in our exports.

“We worked extensively with traders to ensure the new controls and requirements are clear and not burdensome – which is why low risk products face no additional certification or checks, while medium risk products will undergo reduced checks, minimising the risk of delays.

“We will continue to work closely with businesses across the UK as the controls are implemented.”


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