UK/EU agri-food rules deal ‘obvious choice’ for reducing NI Protocol checks

A UK/EU deal on agri-food rules is the “obvious” way to slash red tape associated with Brexit’s Irish Sea border, Maros Sefcovic has said.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator told Northern Ireland Assembly members that a Swiss-style deal on animal and plant standards was a “ready-made recipe” for cutting the “vast majority” of checks required on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Such an agreement has been resisted by London, as it would require the UK to continue to align its regulations with the EU’s.

Checking facility at Belfast Port for goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain (Liam McBurney/PA)

The UK has concerns that such an arrangement could hinder its ability to strike trade deals with other international partners.

But US president Joe Biden has signalled that a UK/EU agreement on agri-food rules would not negatively impact on the prospects of a future UK/US trade deal.

Mr Sefcovic told a special sitting of the Assembly’s Executive Office committee that such an agreement could be temporary in nature.

“The solution to this would be this SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) agreement because then there would be no problem with the mincemeat, with the chilled meats, with the sausages, with checking of animals, the vets,” he said.

“I think it’s such an obvious choice that I hope that we can find a way forward on this very important issue with (UK Brexit minister) Lord Frost and between our teams.”

The European Commission vice president added: “I want to see necessary checks reduced to an absolute minimum possible.

“To mention one measure that would address some concerns and could be negotiated very quickly – a so-called Swiss-style veterinarian agreement with the UK continuing to apply EU SPS rules will do away with the vast majority of the checks in the Irish Sea and would not require checks elsewhere, say in Northern Ireland, including for travels with pets, for example.”

Maros Sefcovic giving evidence to Stormont MLAs (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Sefcovic said a New Zealand-style deal would not do away with as many checks.

The EU and New Zealand agreement involves both parties mutually recognising that the other has high food safety standards. This reduces the proportion of checks required but allows New Zealand to continue to set its own SPS regulations.

Mr Sefcovic said he had received positive feedback from Northern Ireland traders on the potential of a Swiss-style veterinary deal to address the issues with the protocol.

“I have to say that in many contacts with the Northern Irish stakeholders, I’ve had the positive feedback for our idea for this Swiss-type veterinary agreement, which I said will alleviate most checks and facilitate east/west trade flows between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” he told Stormont MLAs.

“I’m very well aware of the UK Government’s initial concerns but remain optimistic that we can find the solution that would work for everybody, most of all for the people of Northern Ireland.

“We can also have a temporary agreement – it was an addition to my initial proposal – until the UK chooses to opt for different SPS standards, let’s say if they are about to conclude a very important free trade agreement with another partner.”

Mr Sefcovic told MLAs that under the EU/Swiss veterinary agreement, there were “no checks needed for all sorts of goods and products”.

He said the EU/New Zealand agreement required “quite a lot of checks” covered by 11 pieces of legislation.

He said even a temporary deal would help in efforts to overcome issues with the protocol.

Mr Sefcovic said: “I know that the UK Government doesn’t want to have its hands tied because there might be a big free trade agreement coming with important partners like the United States of America.

“But we know that such agreements take time to negotiate, very often several years, and if in the end there will be a need to align to UK SPS rules with those of the US, we would understand and we would say ‘OK in that case we’ll go back to the checks and controls’.

“But this time we would use the time for bridging over the current situation, I hope we can build up the infrastructure, we can hire and train personnel, we can get the real time access to the IT system so the checks can be performed more smoothly, faster and they will be not intrusive at all to the people of Northern Ireland.

“That’s the position we presented to our UK partners, I hope that jointly we can solve the issue of the chilled meat within 48 hours, we will have three months to have another try how to solve this issue.

“We are approaching this with open minds and we have a ready-made recipe how we can sort it out, at least 80% of the checks and controls which are otherwise required.”