A trusted trader scheme has been agreed for Northern Ireland with the aim of easing food imports after January 1st and offering a grace period for the implementation of some Brexit-related checks on goods.
If no deal can be reached on a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK, supermarkets in the North had feared they would have to pay tariffs up front on imports from Britain, only to claim the cost back later in rebates. There were concerns the sheer paperwork would drive up costs of basic goods in the North and make some imports from Britain unfeasible.
Under the new scheme, importers deemed trusted traders will be able to skip the procedure, with goods expected to carry a label stating they are for sale only in Northern Ireland.
The scheme is expected to cover the vast majority of imports on goods intended for the Northern Irish market from Britain, with the rest able to claim back tariffs under the original system.
There will be a sunset clause of 3½ years on the arrangement, meaning the EU could pull the plug if they believe it is leading to smuggling into the single market. This review by the joint UK-EU committee on the protocol would happen just before the Northern Ireland Assembly would be due to have a vote on whether to continue the protocol arrangements.
In addition, there will be a grace period of implementation of export health certificates on agrifood products brought into the North from Britain, a costly procedure also feared to have implications on the viability of food imports across the Irish Sea as it would require individual inspections for goods such as ham sandwiches.
Under EU rules, there is no provision for the import of high-risk goods such as fresh, unfrozen meat or ready meals into the single market from outside the EU, potentially barring imports into the North from Britain.
On this issue, there will also be a grace period of implementation to allow supermarkets to adjust supply chains to source such goods elsewhere.
The text outlining the details has yet to be publicly released, but some aspects have emerged from internal briefings by the co-chairs of the joint committee charged with implementing the agreement, the European Commission's Maros Sefcovic and British cabinet minister Michael Gove.
Mr Gove said on Wednesday the deal struck with the European Commission on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement "puts the people of Northern Ireland first".
Mr Gove said there would be no additional requirements placed on Northern Ireland businesses.
He told the House of Commons: “This deal protects unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to their most important market as the prime minister underlined.
“This had to be protected in full and that meant removing any prospect of export declarations for Northern Ireland goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
“As for what our agreement will do, there will be no additional requirements placed on Northern Ireland businesses with a very limited and specific exception of trade in endangered species and conflict diamonds.”
He said that businesses in Northern Ireland would be free of all tariffs on imports from Britain.
He told MPs: “The deal safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory. As recently as July, the commission had envisaged a default tariff scenario in which, and I quote, ‘all goods brought into Northern Ireland would be considered to be at risk are as such subject to the common customs tariff’.
"If that had been implemented, that would have raised the prospect of a 58 per cent tariff on a pint of milk going from Scotland to a supermarket in Strabane or 96 per cent on a bag of sugar going from Liverpool to the shops of Belfast.
“As we’ve repeatedly made clear, this could never have been an acceptable outcome. So, I’m pleased to say that under the agreement that we’ve reached, Northern Ireland businesses selling to consumers or using goods in Northern Ireland will be free of all tariffs.
“Whether that’s Nissan cars from Sunderland or lamb from Montgomeryshire, internal UK trade will be protected as we promised whether we have a free trade agreement with the EU or not.”
The British government and European Commission reached the agreement this week on how to practically implement arrangements for Northern Ireland agreed last year, allowing Downing Street to scrap plans for contentious laws overriding the withdrawal agreement.
There will be an estimated 15 EU officials based in Northern Ireland to ensure the protocol is enforced, and controls can take place without prior notification, at any time, according to an internal EU briefing.
The British side has not agreed to a permanent EU headquarters for them to work from – a politically contentious issue – but there are expected to be workarounds such as the use of offices in another building.
EU institutions will have remote access to UK databases, allowing them to monitor customs procedures from afar, and share this data with member states to ensure trust that the defacto Irish Sea border of the single market is being effectively controlled.
Border checks on goods from Britain entering Northern Ireland will take place at four border control posts, understood to be Port of Larne, Foyle port, Belfast harbour and Warrenpoint port.
Two of them are yet to be completed but will operate as temporary structures, and will inspected by the European Commission. The British government has set out a construction schedule for their completion.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Labour said the documents released by the UK government suggested there would be a “range of checks” coming in on goods moving between Britain and the North and that there could be further upheaval in the new year.
Rachel Reeves, Opposition shadow minister to Mr Gove, said: “Could the minister explain why today’s documents confirm that on trade from GB-NI, there will indeed be a range of checks and indeed the trusted trader scheme will be removed after 3½ years and reviewed then, with further uncertainty at that point.
“And indeed the exemption of agri-food checks are only available for three months. So can the minister tell us what guarantees there are with prices and availability of fresh food supplies in Northern Ireland after April 1st, and will custom checks be required just three months into 2021?
“This all begs the question, did the prime minister actually know what he had signed up to last year and gave false assurances to this House or did he simply not care?” – Additional reporting: PA