Brexit explained: What would a no-deal Brexit mean for Ireland?

Donald Tusk has warned a no-deal Brexit is‘more likely than ever.’ But if it happens it could be chaotic


What is a no-deal Brexit?

A no-deal Brexit is the term used to describe what happens if the UK leaves the European Union without concluding a withdrawal agreement. This agreement is being negotiated and most of the key issues have been more or less agreed, with the exception of one big sticking point – the Irish Border backstop. This is the demand from the EU for a legal guarantee that whatever transpires in negotiations, there will be no return of a hard Irish Border after Brexit.

If the withdrawal agreement is signed, then a transition period starts at the end of March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU. This is a kind of stand-still when most things remain as they are now under December 2020, to allow negotiations of the future relationship between the EU and UK to take place. However, if the UK leaves without a withdrawal agreement being signed, then there will be no transition period and it will crash out of the EU next March, with all current trading and regulatory links with the EU ending immediately as it departs. This could be chaotic and carry a considerable cost for Ireland as well as for the UK itself.

So what would this mean?

The UK currently trades with the EU under rules set down by the EU customs union, which is an agreement that goods can be traded freely, and the single market, which sets a common regulatory structure and allows the free movement of goods,capital, people and services.

Leaving these two arrangements overnight would, first, mean the UK would trade with the EU on the basis of rules set down by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This would end the free movement of goods between the UK and the EU, including between the UK and Ireland, and mean that tariffs, or special import taxes, would apply on some products. Customs checks would also be immediately needed between countries.

The end of common regulation between the EU and UK would also affect many sectors, such as aviation, pharmaceuticals, food and on and on. This could disrupt trade and business in the short term, as new arrangements are put in place, and in the long term would require further checks at or near borders.

Any examples?

There are plenty of examples. Looking at business, exports to and imports from the UK would immediately be affected as the EU regime would be replaced by WTO rules. Some 12 per cent of our goods exports go to the UK, but the figure rises to around 40 per cent in the food sector. These goods would be subject to immediate new bureaucracy and checks – and possibly disruptive delays. Tariffs, special taxes imposed on goods entering a country, would also apply and would be particularly damaging for food exports.

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As well as goods going to the UK market, around two thirds of Irish exports to the Continent go over the UK landbridge. These could face four new checks – leaving Ireland, entering and leaving the UK and entering Continental ports.

The beef sector, where more than half of all exports go to the UK, would be particularly exposed to a hard Brexit as tariffs of 50 per cent or more of their value would apply to many beef products, effectively pricing many Irish exports out of the UK market. Producers would seek other markets and some will operate from within the UK. But this would lead to lower exports, job losses and lower prices for farmers

Goods imported to Ireland would also be affected. Around 23 per cent of Irish imports come from the UK and many businesses, notably in pharma and chemicals, would see their supply chains disrupted.

There are also issues for consumers, with two thirds of the products on our supermarket shelves either coming from the UK, or moving via the UK landbridge to Ireland, according to a paper for the Institute for International and European Affairs by economists John FitzGerald and Edgar Morgenroth. Big supermarkets typically bring products in here from distribution centres in the UK covering the UK and Ireland, but a no-deal Brexit – or even trade barriers after an organised Brexit – may make this impossible, as a whole range of checks would potentially be needed on all the different products.

In the short-term, a no-deal Brexit could threaten disruption to some supplies on our shelves. In the longer term it could shake up the sector, leading to changes in the mix of products and higher prices. An ESRI study estimated that a hard Brexit could push up prices here by 2 to 3 per cent, increasing the average annual shopping bills for consumers by between €892 and €1,360. A no-deal exit would see these costs potentially start to accrue quickly, starting in March 2019.

Is there more? What about talk of planes not taking off?

There is plenty more. Aviation is, indeed, one example. At the moment the UK aircraft industry operates under EU regulation both within the EU and for flights to other countries such as the US. If the UK leaves suddenly next April, some new regulatory arrangement would be needed. This could be worked out in advance, or could ground flights between the UK and EU countries for a period if not. On some scenarios, flight might halt for a few days before things are worked out – but much will depend on what the mood is between the two sides at the time.

Similarly in pharmaceuticals, the UK is part of the EU regulatory regime and questions would emerge over pharma imports here form the UK and visa versa. Stockpiling of vital drugs in both the UK and EU countries including Ireland is likely as a fallback.

Surely all this can be avoided, even if there is no deal?

Some of it, possibly. Certainly planning might allow some fixes in terms of regulation – to allow planes to continue flying, for example. But neither side can change the rules of international trade.

The only other way out would be for both sides to take a deep breath and agree that the UK could take longer to exit the UK than previously planned. This would be possible, but only if the UK and all the remaining 27 EU member states agreed.

Is there any way of calculating the damage to our economy?

The Department of Finance calculated that a hard version of Brexit could lead to Irish GDP being 4.5 per cent lower in ten years time with a loss of 40,000 jobs. However this was done on the basis that there would be a transition deal. Another study commissioned by the Government from Copenhagen Economics, a consultancy firm, estimated that GDP could be 7 per cent lower by 2030 in the event of a hard Brexit.

A no-deal Brexit, by bringing all the changes into a short timeframe, risks also ensuring that more of the costs come in the early years. In particular, if the UK crashes out in March 2019 it would hit growth next year and threaten a significant hit to existing economic and tax forecasts for 2019.

What about the Irish border?

Taoiseach Leo Vardakar has said the Government “would not countenance a return of a Border on the island under any circumstances.” However in a no-deal Brexit, many experts believe it would have no option but to reimpose a border, to conduct checks on goods entering the EU market and, crucially, control smuggling.

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