Brussels moves on while new post-Brexit trade barriers are coming to the surface

Here we are again, at the end of another week, coming to you with the highlights on the new EU-UK relations and the aftermath of the end of the transition period.

Brexit’s bitter taste

This week, a trade analysis published by the UK Food and Drink Federation has revealed a sharp decline in UK exports to the EU, reporting a fall in sales of food and drink products by 75% compared to January 2020. The membership organisation, which represents the UK’s food and drink industry, based its assessment on the January 2021 trade figures released by the UK Revenue and Customs department.

While the prolonged closure of the hospitality industry in the EU can partly explain this development, it is likely that new non-tariff barriers created by the end of the Brexit transition period on 31st December have contributed to the export drop.

Although the EU and UK have agreed on a tariff- and quota-free trade regime under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), UK exporters are nevertheless required to comply with the EU’s standards and regulations when exporting to the bloc. These non-tariff trade barriers can give rise to red tape and additional costs, especially for exporters in the food and drink sector, which is governed by a set of strict EU rules and obligations.

The rocky road towards seamless agri-food trade…

Not only the latest statistics indicate that trade in agri-food products between the EU and the UK no longer runs smoothly; a report published by the UK House of Lord’s EU Environment sub-committee on 23rd March found that strict sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures foreseen by the TCA raise concerns among UK stakeholders in the agri-food sector, too.

SPS measures aim to protect human, animal, and plant life from risks associated with pests, diseases, additives, contaminants and toxins – and the EU is known for its tough stance on the respect of these provisions as it regularly blocks imports of non-compliant products from third countries.

Some stakeholders, however, consider the TCA’s provisions on SPS measures as too strict, arguing they would disrupt trade due to specialist paperwork and frequent inspections. Dominic Goudie, Head of International Trade at the Food and Drink Federation, criticised: “The reality is that there is very little difference from a no-deal scenario … We have less generous access on sanitary and phytosanitary checks than New Zealand, who do not even have a preferential trade deal with the EU”.

To settle such disputes, the TCA foresees the establishment of a Trade Specialised Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures that would allow stakeholders to review the SPS border control provisions and propose further facilitations.

Time to move on

In the meantime, on the Continent, President of the European Parliament David Sassoli announced in an interview with POLITICO this week that the European Parliament intends to ratify the EU-UK post-Brexit trade deal during its plenary meeting on 26th April. The agreement, which was struck after intense negotiations on 24th December 2020, has already been ratified by the European Council and the UK Parliament, yet requires the European Parliament’s consent to legally enter into force.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament postponed the ratification of the Brexit trade deal amid tensions over the UK’s unilateral decision to extend grace periods on border checks on agri-food products entering Northern Ireland. However, with the provisional application of the agreement due to expire on 30th April, time is running out. Sassoli made clear that the ratification of the trade deal must move forward, ruling out an extension. The tensions over the UK’s implementation of the agreement have provoked discontent in the European Parliament, and so there is a growing pressure from its members to ratify the agreement as soon as possible to formally close the Brexit chapter.

Mission Impossible for the EU’s new Brexit divorce mediator?

Meanwhile in the European Commission, Richard Szostak took the new role as Head of the newly established service for the EU-UK Agreement, which replaced Michel Barnier’s Brexit taskforce. Szostak will be tasked with supervising the implementation of the TCA and with it, bridging the persisting EU-UK divide.

Former aide to Jean-Claude Juncker during his time as President of the European Commission, Szostak holds a Polish and UK passports, and brings considerable experience in foreign policy to the negotiation table and has been deeply involved in the Brexit negotiations under the previous Commission. People close to Szostak describe the diplomat as someone who is cool under pressure – a characteristic that will come in handy in light of the ongoing tensions between the EU and UK over the implementation of the Brexit trade agreement…

Loyalty of Remainers’ tested over vaccine export ban

While for many Brexit supporters the UK’s progress in its vaccination program serves as a confirmation of Britain’s victory over the EU (and a diversion from the actual economic and social fallouts of Brexit), the EU’s comparably slow vaccine roll-out did not compromise on the level of support for the EU among Remainers. At least until Commission President von der Leyen’s recent considerations to impose a vaccine export ban, voiced during a press conference on 17th March, which seem to have turned the tide among EU-enthusiasts in the UK.

Von der Leyen’s comments even sparked criticism among fierce EU supporters in the UK Parliament. For instance, Labour Peer Lord Adonis, who is campaigning for the UK to re-join the EU, tweeted that the vaccine crisis shows “an absence of leadership in Europe”. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI over the weekend of 20th and 21st March revealed similar sentiments among Remainers in the British population. 65% of remain voters align with the view that UK has handled the COVID-19 vaccination process better than EU countries, and 31% of the surveyed Remainers believe that the UK’s exit has had a positive effect on the national pandemic response. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the findings of an Ipso MORI study conducted in summer 2020, which found that an overwhelming 95% of the UK population wanted the government to closely collaborate with the EU to combat the pandemic.

While the difference between the EU’s and UK’s speed in the vaccine roll-out roots, by large, in contractual problems faced by the EU, the shift in opinion also shows the highly politicised nature of the vaccine programme and the wider responses to the pandemic.

Political consultancy

The Whitehouse team are experts in the impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients across the Member States of the European Union and the United Kingdom. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here. If you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse. at