Brexit: Full animal checks proposed as part of ‘backstop’ deal

EU working on minimised checks plan in bid to sell Border guarantee compromise to UK

Inspections on live animal imports into Northern Ireland from Britain would have to increase tenfold to full checks under the so-called backstop to avoid a hard Irish border, according to EU sources.

EU negotiators are assessing how to “de-dramatise” the proposed legal guarantee to avoid a hard border in Ireland, but are working on the premise that checks of animals and animal product imports into the North would have to rise from the current risk-based checks on 10 per cent of imports to 100 per cent under the backstop.

The work is being carried out as part of the EU's attempt to soften the language around the backstop to make it more politically acceptable to the UK in order to reach a deal on the remaining sticking point in Brexit talks.

The EU's proposed backstop involves Northern Ireland effectively staying in the EU customs union and at least part of the single market

Brussels is stressing that, in order to protect the single market, the additional checks at Larne, the only Northern Irish port with border inspection posts for live animals, would involve a scaling up of work that is already being carried out there, EU sources say.


The European Commission will also propose that a future EU-UK trade deal could reduce checks further, perhaps requiring only a doubling or tripling of current checks.

Northern Ireland and the Republic are effectively treated as an all-island unit when it comes to animal health and veterinary checks since the BSE and foot-and-mouth outbreaks.

EU-UK negotiations have stalled on the backstop, the insurance policy within the withdrawal agreement covering the UK’s exit from the EU next March that would guarantee to maintain a frictionless Irish border.

Dublin and Brussels insist London agree to this last resort option within the withdrawal deal – ahead of negotiations on a trade deal – in case the Border issue is not resolved in a broader EU-UK trade agreement.

The EU’s proposed backstop involves Northern Ireland effectively staying in the EU customs union and at least part of the single market after Brexit to guarantee there will be no need for checks along the Irish Border.

Britain's opposition against two customs areas within the UK remains a major stumbling block

British prime minister Theresa May has repeatedly refused to accept this option, saying that no UK leader could agree to a plan that, she maintains, would split the UK, constitutionally and economically, in two.

EU negotiators are formally awaiting Ms May’s own proposal for a legally operable backstop.

Minimised technical controls

Brexit negotiators in Brussels are working on a legal text on the backstop agreement that would only involve minimised technical controls between Northern Ireland and Britain so as not to disrupt trade.

The language would be designed to protect the EU single market while avoiding both a hard border on the island of Ireland or extensive checks on a border down the Irish Sea, while making a strong political statement to resolve all issues in a future trade deal without the need to resort to the backstop.

Britain’s opposition against two customs areas within the UK remains, however, a major stumbling block and the EU will insist that checks take place somewhere to protect the integrity of the single market.

In a further attempt to de-politicise the backstop as a contentious issue, the EU’s text on a legally operable backstop would move checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain from border inspections at ports and airports to spot checks on board vessels and on industrial and manufacturer premises.

The EU side has argued that the checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain would be in line with the procedures on imports and exports moving between the Canary Islands and Spain, which does not undermine Madrid's constitutional integrity over the Spanish archipelago off the coast of Africa.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent