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EU deal: Firms warn of 'sheer bureaucracy,' tariffs and border chaos

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·4-min read
Freight lorries receive additional inspection checks after arriving at the Port of Dover following the end of the Brexit transition period, in Dover, Britain. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters
Freight lorries receive additional inspection checks after arriving at the Port of Dover following the end of the Brexit transition period, in Dover, Britain. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

Lorries carrying food to Northern Ireland’s supermarkets may need more than 100 health certificates under the UK-EU trade deal, a business chief has warned.

A string of industry leaders sounded the alarm on Wednesday over a wave of new Brexit bureaucracy, warning widely predicted lorry backlogs would eventually materialise at ports.

Several told a hearing in parliament that restrictive and complex trade rules meant rising costs for firms, threatening UK steel and other exporters’ competitiveness and Northern Ireland’s food supply chain.

Representatives of the retail, manufacturing and food and drink production sectors also voiced frustration firms had been given just 24 hours’ notice of some new guidance before rules changed on 31 December.

READ MORE: Supermarkets warn Brexit rules ‘unworkable’

Andrew Opie, food and sustainability director at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told MPs further rules on moving food from Britain to Northern Ireland from April would be “unworkable” for UK supermarkets.

He said recent product shortages had been “pretty much” overcome as firms adapted to new rules, but from April supermarkets’ animal- and plant-based products will also need veterinary sign-off and export health certificates.

Such rules have already come into force for other food exporters supplying the EU. “A lorry moving currently from a depot or port in Wales to the Republic probably has in excess of 100 different certificates for all the different products.

“We should not be simply trying to apply the same processes that apply for the EU into the GB-NI agreement,” he said. Products made of multiple items pose extra hurdles, with Opie flagging lasagne as an example of a “complicated” product.

READ MORE: ASOS’ £15m Brexit bill highlights costs of EU deal

Firms supplying Ireland also have to give 24 hours’ notice of what consignments contain. Opie said supermarket just-in-time supply chains typically work on much faster turnaround times, with drivers not aware in advance of the precise contents they will carry.

Supermarket CEOs wrote to the UK government this week calling for arrangements to be renegotiated with the EU, and Opie called for the Irish government to shorten the 24-hour notice period.

Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, also warned MPs: “Unless the deal changes, we’re going to see the re-engineering of almost all the EU-UK and GB-NI supply chains over the next six to nine months.”

Paperwork requirements on all UK exports to the EU have significantly increased since the Brexit deal came into effect. Wright said tasks that previously took three hours at even one large, well-prepared global firm had taken five days.

The “impenetrability” of the paperwork is the biggest problem, he said, but claimed officials were as “clueless about provisions of some of the deal as those who are operating under it.”

WATCH: UK supermarkets warn of ‘cliff edge’ for Northern Ireland supplies

New requirements on rules-of-origin are “replete with difficulties hidden away” and “not as generous” as hoped, he added. Firms were still assessing their implications, with the fear that some products could risk tariffs if a certain share of their ingredients are from outside the EU.

He defended his sectors’ efforts to plan, suggesting the transition period had been spend negotiating rather than preparing. “We weren’t ready, but we could not have been ready because nobody knew what the deal said almost until the moment it was implemented.”

Industry chiefs highlighted a string of other issues including:

  • Steel firms could face 25% tariffs despite a nominally tariff-free trade deal, which would take effect when they exceed a new EU quota for UK exports and even steel sent to Northern Ireland later this year. Stephen Phipson, CEO of Make UK said it was “difficult to predict” how such issues could be overcome when asked by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, but said progress was being made.

  • Border disruption in Kent “will get worse” as freight volume picks up, Wright said, with issues limited so far only as firms’ caution has left current volumes at a fifth of typical levels.

  • Britain not having “anywhere near” the 50,000 customs agents said to be needed to handle extra paperwork for firms, according to Wright. Phibson added that manufacturers were already struggling to get hold of agents.

  • Firms were surprised by the “sheer bureaucracy” of new processes, Opie said, having to manually input information with forms not digitised, and dealing with separate official systems for customs and product safety.