By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) – The UK’s leading supermarket groups have warned the government that “urgent intervention” is needed to prevent major food disruption in Northern Ireland in the coming months.
The UK is no longer part of the European Union’s single market and customs union, but Northern Ireland has a foot in both camps as part of the UK’s customs territory while still aligning with the EU’s single market for goods.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which covers post-Brexit trade between the UK and Northern Ireland, supermarkets selling to the area have a three month grace period to adjust their supply systems to the new commercial reality.
However, since the turn of the year, some Northern Ireland supermarkets have been experiencing a shortage of fresh goods, which are normally imported from the UK, due to difficulties switching to new processes and bureaucratic procedures.
The bosses of the retailers including Tesco (LON:TSCO), Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer have written to Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove warning that the situation could get worse.
The letter seen by Reuters said it was important to negotiate a long-term solution with the EU before the grace period for simplified controls ends on March 31.
“All of our companies and suppliers have invested heavily over the past few months to avoid disruption, but this will be inevitable if the proposals for moving food from the UK to Northern Ireland are adopted,” the letter said.
“We understand that the European Commission wants increased compliance to support the concessions made under the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, the current proposals, increased bureaucracy and certification are not feasible in such a short time.”
The managing directors called on Gove to set up a dedicated working group to coordinate government agencies in integrating customs and food controls.
“It also requires an open discussion with the EU explaining why we cannot incorporate changes to the current approach to transporting food to Northern Ireland, but we stress that we are working towards a robust system as soon as possible”, the letter reads, calling on the government and the EU to agree that more time is needed to put a new system in place.
Gove said Wednesday that a dedicated team had been set up and were working to find a solution.
“We will make it clear to the European Commission what the consequences would be if supermarkets (after March 31st) were not able to continue serving consumers in Northern Ireland,” he told Parliament.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there were “teething troubles” in UK-Northern Ireland trade but goods were flowing effectively and in normal quantities.
“But I can confirm … that if there are problems that we consider disproportionate, we will not hesitate to use Article 16,” he told Parliament.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol contains details of so-called safeguard measures, which enable both parties to take unilateral action if the agreement results in unexpected negative effects.