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Newton Emerson: Brussels playing games with Irish sea border

Hard line on checks at odds with EU commitment to peace process

Four-fifths of all grocery spending in Northern Ireland takes place in just three supermarket chains: Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

Tesco and Asda have one distribution centre each in the region: Tesco in the Belfast Harbour Estate and Asda by the Port of Larne.

As with most modern supermarkets, neither has any significant storage space in their shops, meaning goods roll off ferries to be sorted in one place, effectively by the quayside, before arriving in store straight from loading bay to shelf.

Sainsbury’s model is even simpler, with one huge distribution centre in East Kilbride serving Scotland and Northern Ireland.


The smaller shops that make up the rest of the grocery market are mostly supplied by two wholesalers, each with one distribution centre in Belfast.

This is the context for minimising the Brexit sea border, and the reason retailers and hauliers are hopeful it can be done.

In theory, an average supermarket container arriving in Northern Ireland faces European Union compliance costs of anywhere between £6,000 (a third of its value) and £100,000. Even the lower estimate would be ruinous.

In practice, almost every grocery item arriving from Britain is in the care of a handful of high-street names and is routed through one of just half a dozen warehouses. Very little trust and monitoring should be required to be confident these goods are not at risk of leaking across the land border into the EU and can therefore have their sea border processes waived under the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol of the UK’s withdrawal agreement.


Major retail chains will not become involved in smuggling or counterfeiting and their internal systems would pick up any attempt at such fraud by insiders or third parties. Tesco has a specialist analytics centre to look for suspicious trends in its mountains of data, covering customers, staff and suppliers. Among the warning signs it can reportedly detect are vegetarians buying meat. Lorry loads of chlorinated chicken will hardly disappear unnoticed.

Simplification should also be straightforward on the sea border from west to east. The EU says export declarations are required, at a cost of £16 to £56 per item, as goods are leaving its customs union and must be tracked in case they re-enter it. The British government, in its draft proposals last month, noted anything from Northern Ireland being exported from Britain will have exit checks anyway, so internal UK paperwork is unnecessary. This is a reasonable point.

So why did the European Commission slap it down in media briefings? Why is it sticking to a maximalist position that all goods entering Northern Ireland be presumed at risk?

Suggesting the EU might be acting unreasonably tends to fall on deaf ears.

During the withdrawal phase of Brexit, Brussels talked a great game about protecting the peace process as its first priority. The sea border was about preventing a hard land border, as that would provoke violence. A backstop was required against this and it had to be agreed before anything else could be discussed. Now a sea border has been agreed as a frontstop, let alone a backstop.

Bargaining chip

The Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol stands alone from trade discussions. So the only reason to take a hard line on the sea border is to protect the EU’s single market. The only reason for Brussels to do this now, bundling it up in trade talks, is to use Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip.

To the extent this threatens prosperity and stability in the North, it is rather obviously ranking peace below the EU’s interests, or just the EU’s convenience. The sea border could never leak enough to seriously undermine the single market.

The Republic has a sincere interest in avoiding any secondary checks on its frontier. Many nationalists in Northern Ireland will think a tight sea border heralds an all-Ireland economy and political unity, which would serve unionists right. This forgets the sea border runs all the way down the Irish Sea. If retailers in Northern Ireland cannot stock their shelves economically from Britain, they cannot do so via the Republic.

Without a trade deal, the Republic would face a difficult adjustment of its own. In the end, expecting the UK to voluntarily disrupt its food supply for the EU’s paperwork is a political unicorn. If the sea border is unworkable, containers will be waved through at Belfast and checkpoints will go up in Dundalk. It is in nobody’s interest in Ireland to see this happen, yet Brussels is prepared to play games with the scenario.

The original sin of Brexit lies, of course, with the UK – but lying has never been restricted to Brexiteers. Erroneous claims of breaches to the Belfast Agreement created their own needless risks to peace and the agreement’s institutions. The EU’s approach to Northern Ireland has been dangerously cynical from the outset. Whatever excuse there might still be for that, there is no longer any excuse for not seeing it.