Impasse over the Irish Sea
The EU and UK have failed to break the impasse over the controversial Northern Ireland protocol contained in the Brexit trade agreement this week, following two hours of Brexit talks. Amid mounting political pressure from local businesses and civic leaders, leaders convened to discuss trade disruption in Northern Ireland since the end of the Brexit transition period. No breakthrough was reached on requests by the UK to extend grace periods, some of which will expire at the end of March.
Democratic Unionist leader and First Minister Arlene Foster accused Brussels of being “tone deaf” to real concerns over checks that have led to shortages in supermarkets and a ban on plants and trees entering the province from Britain. Last week, orders for almost 100,000 trees were cancelled, generating major setbacks for tree-planting programmes in Belfast and the surrounding areas.
Both sides have pledged to reach a “pragmatic solution”, with the UK agreeing to develop new plans to respond to problems with supermarket supplies as well as promising additional funding to develop “digital solutions for traders.”
Growers hit by labour shortages
Growers of flowers and ornamental plants in the UK have warned that millions of blooms will go unpicked after the sector was excluded from a scheme to admit farm workers after Brexit.
For several decades, the vast majority of picking has been carried out by overseas workers, mostly from eastern Europe. Whilst EU citizens with settled or pre-settled status can work on British farms, a significant shortfall remains in the number of people applying for jobs in the sector.
Last year, the government offered to help fruit and vegetable growers amid labour concerns during the pandemic. Under the seasonal workers pilot scheme, up to 30,000 labourers can travel to the UK to work on farms in 2021.
An ongoing labour shortage in ornamental horticulture has prompted calls for the scheme to be adapted to include the sector, which contributes over £24 billion to the UK economy annually.
Brexit bites zoological conservation efforts
British zoos are struggling with post-Brexit paperwork rules, stalling conservation efforts both in the UK and the EU. The UK is now considered a third country by the EU, which complicates administrative procedures and leads to disruption.
Before Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, around 1,400 animals were transported across the UK and EU border in both directions annually. But the UK’s departure from the EU has drastically reduced the pace of animal transfers, many of which form part of conservation programmes to save endangered species.
Zoos across the UK have been left significantly short of income due to being closed to the public for most of the pandemic, straining breeding programmes for many species. Concerns are also growing about the potential overpopulation of animals in the UK which cannot be exported.
UK energy facing ‘instability’
Leading power companies in the UK have warned that the energy market will face instability unless the government urgently clarifies its post-Brexit carbon trading scheme. The scheme came into force at the end of the Brexit transition period and replaces the EU Emissions Trading System. It is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capping the levels that heavy polluters can produce, forcing them to buy carbon credits to cover their annual output.
The government has yet to conclude talks with industry about key aspects of the replacement scheme, leaving the UK’s producers of power selling it without knowing the cost of the associated emissions.
The government’s recently published Energy White Paper has raised fresh concerns about the UK’s willingness to link its own trading system with that of the EU, which had been envisaged during Brexit negotiations.
US slams breaks on post-Brexit trade deal
American President Joe Biden’s nomination as trade representative Katherine Tai has said she wants to “review” the progress and objectives of negotiations on a UK-US trade deal, against the backdrop of the UK-EU Brexit deal and the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a confirmation hearing before the Senate finance committee, Tai pointed to significant developments in the “almost two-and-a-half years” since initial notifications about the intention to open trade talks had taken place. Since then, the UK has signed “two agreements” with the EU, the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Dashing hopes of a quick post-Brexit trade deal, Tai’s comments have been noted by officials in Whitehall, who await the outcome of her confirmation process. She is expected to be confirmed easily owing to rare support amongst Republicans.
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