Britain’s leading supermarket groups have called for “urgent action” to prevent major disruptions to Northern Ireland’s food supply amid new post-Brexit rules, while customers at a major retailer in European stores have already reported several days of empty shelves.
The UK may no longer be part of the European Union’s internal market and customs union, but Northern Ireland has a foothold in both camps as part of the UK’s customs territory while still being in line with the EU’s internal market for goods.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which covers post-Brexit trade between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, supermarkets selling to the territory have a three-month deadline to adapt their delivery systems to the new trade reality.
Since the turn of the year, however, some supermarkets in Northern Ireland have been short of fresh produce, usually imported from the UK, as they have struggled to move to new processes and bureaucratic procedures.
The heads of retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer, have written to Councilor Michael Gove, warning that the situation could worsen.
In the letter, seen by Reuters, they said that it was important to agree on a long-term solution with the EU before the exemption period for simplified controls ends on 31 March.
“All our companies and suppliers have invested significantly in recent months to avoid disruption, but it will be inevitable if the proposals for food movement from the UK to Northern Ireland are adopted,” the letter said.
“We recognize that the European Commission must see increased compliance to support the concessions granted to it by the Northern Ireland Protocol, but the current proposals, increased bureaucracy and certification in such a short time are impossible.”
Managers urged Gove to set up a dedicated working group to coordinate authorities to integrate customs and food controls.
“It also requires an open discussion with the EU to explain why we can not accommodate changes to the current method of transporting food to Northern Ireland, but stresses that we are working towards a robust system as soon as possible,” the letter said, urging the government and EU to agree that more time is needed to implement a new system.
Gove said on Wednesday that a dedicated team has been set up and is working to find a solution.
“We will make it clear to the European Commission what the consequences would be if supermarkets were not in place [after March 31] to continue with the service they provide to Northern Ireland’s consumers, he told Parliament.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there were “dental problems” in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland but that goods flowed efficiently and in normal volumes.
“But I can confirm … that if there are problems that we consider to be disproportionate, we will not hesitate to invoke Article 16,” he told Parliament.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol describes so-called safeguard measures that enable either party to take unilateral action if there is an unexpected adverse effect resulting from the agreement.
Empty shelves in Europe
The shortcomings in Northern Ireland are part of a trade crisis that has become increasingly clear since Britain’s Brexit divorce ended on 31 December.
Many British companies are quickly discovering that they now have to pay customs duties on exports tied to the EU, despite the breakthrough Brexit free trade agreement held during Christmas.
This is due to the so-called “rules of origin” condition that applies to all goods crossing borders, which means that all goods will be subject to a customs duty if they arrive in the UK from abroad and are then exported back to the EU.
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Market giant Marks & Spencer (M&S) warned last week that the trade agreement would “significantly affect” business in the Czech Republic, Ireland and France, adding that around 2,000 of its food products could be affected by the rules of origin. .
Since the UK’s exit from the single market, M&S has struggled to fill shelves in its EU stores and has even temporarily closed some of its stores, with customers taking to Twitter to lament the lack of ready meals, curry boxes and cheddar cheese.
As Steve Rowe, the company’s CEO, put it: “Duty free does not feel like duty free when you read the fine print.”
Other companies have encountered similar problems since January 1, complaining about bureaucracy and additional fees.
“At least 50 of our members are facing potential tariffs on the re-export of goods to the EU,” William Bain, trade policy adviser at the UK Retail Consortium, told AFP.
“We work with members on short-term alternatives and seek dialogue with [UK] government and the EU on long-term solutions to mitigate the effects of new tariffs, he added.
( Jowharwith REUTERS, AFP)