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Access to both markets doesn't mean the best of both worlds - yet

Manufacturing businesses need to be spending time now preparing for what comes in 11 months’ time
Stephen Kelly

AT 11pm tonight the UK's membership of the EU formally expires. But what changes? Well, not a lot, for now, as the UK and EU have agreed a period of transition, so things remain the same until January 1 next year.

From then, Britain moves on, and here we have a new unique trading position which kind of has us in the UK's and kind of in the EU's economic regime and orbits.

Ahead of the UK's exit, the EU's Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier was in Queen's University delivering some home truths. He made it clear that Brexit means creating trade barriers which do not exist today. Putting barriers in the way of free movement of people and diverging on rules which were established to promote open and fair competition has consequences.

Checks and controls are on their way, regardless of what Boris Johnson believes.

He reminded us that last summer the then new British prime minister asked for a permanent not temporary solution, as was intended by the backstop, to move the Brexit discussions on. Checks must take place somewhere. They agreed they couldn't take place on the island of Ireland, so the only option was to use the entry points in to Northern Ireland at ports and airports.

What has resulted is we have some of the benefits of being guaranteed access to both markets, but with many of the burdens. This isn't the best of both worlds, yet.

Our firms are going to have to manage new paperwork to send things to Britain. This we can manage, but the UK needs to stump up some money so businesses can train staff or transportation suppliers.

The big concern is that we can't train GB suppliers who will be asked to complete complex customs declarations, be subject to checks, pay tariffs up front which they may or may not get back – delays and complexities that all add up to additional costs.

Those who make, move and merchandise products here have provided government with a list of ways to repair the deal that Boris is now delivering. Derogation, mitigation, compensation and indeed representation on the key bodies which will manage the new barriers created in the Irish Sea.

However, there are opportunities. More local food producers should be supported by the big retailers to supply stores here and ultimately in GB. Our larger manufacturers and government buyers should be working with our firms to make and supply into them. With the right support perhaps our logistics industry could be supported to be a centre of expertise and develop solutions for those moving goods to continental Europe from Brexited Britain.

Trade flows like water. It will travel along a route of least resistance. As cross border shoppers already know, it's essentially a naturally occurring process. So, maximising the benefits of our now unique access to the EUs Single Market and Customs Union, while working to minimise the new Irish Sea frictions is just common sense.

Our businesses need to be spending time now preparing for what comes in 11 months' time. The EU will never compromise on the integrity of its single market so the UK cannot expect high quality access if it does not want to compete on a fair basis.

:: Stephen Kelly (stephenkelly@manufacturingni.org) is chief executive of Manufacturing NI (www.manufacturingni.org)

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