Trade issues must be a top priority for the Government in Brexit negotiations, Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) president Joe Healy has said.
“Every effort must be made to maintain the closest possible trading relationship between the UK and the EU, while preserving the value of the UK market,’’ he added.
Mr Healy told The Irish Times the Irish agri-food sector was the most exposed sector to Brexit, given that more than 40 per cent of our exports go to the UK.
He was responding to a briefing paper on Brexit to Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe warning the impact of tariffs under a hard Brexit scenario was projected to reduce Ireland's exports to the UK by 31 per cent and total Irish exports by four per cent.
This would represent the largest losses of any EU member state, it added.
It said the burden of tariffs would fall disproportionately on agri-food exports, with dairy and meat products facing average tariffs of between 30 and 50 per cent respectively, while some beef products would face a tariff of over 80 per cent.
If the economic exposures were to be mitigated, strategic emphasis was needed to be placed on trade, it added.
An IFA policy paper has warned of "a virtual wipe out'' in food exports to the UK if Britain opted for a hard Brexit and a reversion to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
It cited a report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), which suggested a hard Brexit could see €1.5 billion wiped off the value of Irish meat exports.
Mr Healy said the most straightforward solution to minimise the disruption to trade was for the UK to remain within the EU's customs union and Ireland should make that a top priority.
On EU-UK trade, he added, the priorities must be to maintain tariff-free trade for agricultural products and food; maintain equivalent standards on food safety, animal health, welfare and the environment.
It must also ensure application by the UK of the EU’s common external tariff for exports so that the UK did not revert to a cheap food policy, Mr Healy said.
Responding to the ministerial briefing paper, chairman of the IFA livestock committee Angus Woods also warned about a cheap food policy.
“The UK market is high value and devaluing it would force us to export elsewhere,’’ he added.
Mr Woods said Brexit represented political interference with a well functioning market.
IFA dairy committee chairman Sean O’Leary said Ireland provided the UK with 83 per cent of its cheddar cheese alone.
“We are very exposed and developing alternative markets and new products will not be easily done if there is a hard Brexit,’’ he said.
Mr O'Leary said while the Brexit unit in the Department of Agriculture was ahead of the game, compared with Northern Ireland and the UK, more clarity was required in terms of the road ahead.