Divergent views have emerged among UK food producers over a possible postponement of the planned July start of physical checks on imports from the European Union.
Speculation is growing that the government will postpone implementing controls, after Boris Johnson hinted last week that a delay was likely.
Speaking during an official visit to India, the Prime Minister said he was “generally in favor of minimum friction at all stages between the UK and the EU”, which controls imports from of Great Britain since the beginning of 2021.
The UK planned reciprocal checks after Brexit last year but postponed implementation three times, although some largely paper-based and computer-based checks were put in place in January.
Although Environment Secretary George Eustice said last month that these controls would be extended as planned in July, the government has since repeatedly hinted at another delay as the Russian invasion of Ukraine fueled further spikes in food prices and heightened concerns about possible shortages after more than a year of rising inflation.
“We are hearing stronger and stronger signs that they [the checks] will be delayed,” said Michael Haverty, senior research consultant with agricultural consultancy The Andersons Centre.
As agri-food producers prepared, “as is” for the July deadline, the sector had been forced to deal with “several rumors of delays” pending “government assurances that an announcement will be made soon. on whether or not a further delay will arrive,” added Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association.
And the lack of certainty, according to Richard Harrow, CEO of the British Frozen Food Federation, had led to anger and confusion.
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“Our members have spent money preparing new rules which have been delayed because the government has failed in its own preparation,” he said. “This constant shifting of the goalposts puts unnecessary pressure on food businesses who are already facing numerous crises in staffing, supply, inflation and energy costs.”
Some industry representatives have welcomed the suggested postponement on the grounds that it would help secure food supplies for the UK, which sources around a quarter of what it consumes in the EU. However, others said any further delay would give an unfair advantage to EU-based competitors who can export to the UK without facing the same checks on goods going the other way.
Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, suggested that the continued lack of controls contributed to “a ranking injustice between the cost and uncertainty faced by our food exporters and EU-based businesses importing UK”.
British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths agreed, adding that the ‘unbalanced controls’ ‘put British competitiveness at risk’ as EU-based rivals had ‘enjoyed frictionless trade for more than one year” with the United Kingdom.
“The longer we wait for comprehensive controls to be introduced, the more the problems become entrenched. Delaying them for a fourth time risks normalizing unfair trade with our largest trading partner,” Griffiths said.
According to Haverty, the imbalance has caused “some concern in the industry that the playing field is not a level playing field in terms of imports from the EU entering relatively unfettered, while UK exporters face all European border control regulations”.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said border controls on the UK side should continue as planned.
“Retailers are finally ready for the implementation of controls in July and recognize that July is the most opportune time to introduce these controls, as imports of fresh and perishable foodstuffs are at an all-time low,” he said. declared.
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“Retailers have been working with their European suppliers for many months to help them prepare,” Opie added.
“A lot of resources have already been spent preparing for the introduction of controls, including the work done by the civil service, the infrastructure put in place by UK ports and the operational preparations by UK businesses,” said Nick Allen of the BMPA. .
But with rising global food prices and consumer inflation already at its highest level in three decades in the UK, another delay “would be the right thing to do” for now, according to Brennan of the CCF. He said he was concerned that “the impact of additional costs and uncertainty for our imports could be felt throughout the UK food supply chain if checks continue”.
His comments were echoed by Lee Holdstock, business relations manager at the Soil Association, who said “a further postponement of port checks [would] give the organic industry more time to explore alternative trade routes.”
Ben Robinson, purchasing manager at The Fine Cheese Co, a Bath-based importer and exporter, said if controls on the UK side were to be imposed as planned in July there would be “significant delays at the border”.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this gets pushed back, hopefully until 2023,” Robinson said, as a postponement would “cut costs and basically keep goods flowing.”