UK explores fourth delay to imposing checks on EU imports
Downing Street is exploring yet another delay to post-Brexit border checks on goods entering Britain from the EU to prevent what industry has warned would be a supply chain disaster.
Ministers are considering whether to push back for the fourth time the introduction of full checks on imports from the EU, which were supposed to come into effect on July 1, as part of a drive to tackle trade friction and the crisis in the cost of living , officials briefed on discussions said.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, argued at a private meeting this week that one advantage of leaving the EU would be to allow Britain to apply only loose checks on imports. Goods arriving from the EU are not subject to safety and security declarations, while food and plant products are not physically checked.
Senior figures in Number 10 are “sympathetic” to the idea of further delays beyond July for the new checks, according to officials.
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has not yet made a firm decision but is being urged to extend the “grace period” for EU imports by Rees-Mogg and former Brexit minister Lord David Frost.
Ministers are looking at this again in the light of cost of living pressures and supply chain pressures. The war in Ukraine has also changed the economic context, ”said one aide, adding that Britain had managed without checks for the past few decades.
British exports to the EU have been subject to the full panoply of EU border checks since the first day of Brexit in January 2020 – while imports from European competitors have enjoyed a far smoother entry into the UK.
Checks were first delayed in June 2020, followed by further deadline extensions in March 2021 and again in September 2021.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said imposing full veterinary controls on food imports from the EU would lead to “a collapse in supplies” for UK businesses that relied on frequent deliveries of small volumes of fresh food products from the EU.
“Given the ongoing inflationary costs and supply chain stress, a further delay makes sense, even if it entrenches the ongoing unfairness between the experience of EU importers and UK exporters,” he said.
James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, said any decision to delay would anger many exporters. “There is a logic given the ripples in the supply chain created by the Ukraine crisis, but there’s no doubt this will stick in the throat of a lot of exporters who are now 15 months into navigating a tsunami of paperwork that our EU competitors are not facing, ”he said.
However, the Food and Drink Federation, the UK’s main trade body for food processors, said that while full controls were important in the long term, the crisis in Ukraine – which is particularly hurting supplies of wheat, sunflower oil and white fish – justified a delay.
Britain’s trade performance has recovered from the pandemic much more slowly than equivalent developed economies.
The Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent fiscal watchdog, last week held to its assumption that “leaving the EU will result in the UK’s total imports and exports being 15 per cent lower than had the UK remained a member state”.
One person close to Rees-Mogg said that the “self-imposed costs” were out of proportion with the risks on the ground. “At a time of high and rising inflation and supply chain difficulties, we should not introduce burdensome checks that will impose costs on ourselves, on businesses and consumers,” he said.
His position echoes that of Frost, who said last month: “We have to put up with EU controls. But. . . we should have a light-touch border to the whole world. That’s a Brexit opportunity. “
Rees-Mogg has urged fellow ministers to await the conclusions of government plans to digitize border processes to create “the most effective border in the world” by 2025, for which he now has responsibility.