Trade between the UK and the EU may never return to “normal”, a senior Brexit minister has admitted.
Lord Frost appeared to blame Brussels for the barriers many firms are facing to trading with the EU, despite negotiating the trade deal that took the UK out of the single market, which used to guarantee free flowing business with the continent.
It came after Brexiteer Tory MP Richard Drax said he had heard from businesses having difficulties with “red tape, the colour of your pen, problems at the border” as a result of the UK leaving the single market.
Recent official statistics showed that in the first quarter of the year when the UK and EU traded on post-Brexit terms for the first time, exports to the EU were down 18% with imports down 21%, compared to the last quarter of 2020.
Particular sectors such as food and drink have been particularly hard hit by the new export requirements, and for the first time on record EU imports were outstripped by non-EU goods in March.
Frost said there were “teething problems” in seafood exports and said government support for the industry was having “some effect” in making exports easier.
He said there were “isolated incidents” of EU officials complaining about “the wrong colour stamp or pen” but said largely the Brussels side had been “pretty pragmatic”.
At the Commons European scrutiny committee, Drax then asked Frost if he was confident that in months and years ahead business can resume “as normal as it possibly can”.
Frost replied: “I don’t know whether it will happen, I think it definitely can happen.
“There is a lot of pragmatism, everybody wants trade to continue in as free flowing a way as we possibly can in the new arrangements.
“There is definitely a large current of opinion in the EU and member states that want that to happen.
“I think there are people who see Brexit as a bit of a zero-sum game and want us to face difficulties.
“But I like to think those won’t be the dominant opinions and things will settle down in a fairly pragmatic way as we move forward.
Frost also admitted that checks at the Northern Irish border that he and the prime minister negotiated were causing more problems for businesses in the rest of the UK than they had anticipated.
The minister is currently trying to renegotiate the terms of trade for Northern Ireland to improve the situation amid growing tensions in the region.
But he rejected the EU’s call for the UK to adopt Brussels regulations on plant and animal-based trade as a way through the row.
Frost said: “I think the broader question is that the processes around the boundary between GB [Great Britain] and Northern Ireland are significant.
“They probably have a bigger chilling effect than we thought on GB businesses wanting to move goods into Northern Ireland and that is one of the problems that’s underlying some of the unrest and political developments we’re seeing in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “Obviously, from the EU’s point of view the easiest solution to any border problem is that we should just operate the same rules and laws as they do, and that solves the problem, obviously that doesn’t work for us and that isn’t going to be the solution.
“That was obviously one of the big problems with the original backstop and everything that went with it, so we’re not going back there.”