Richard North, 28/02/2018  

One could get a little bored with repeating "I told you so", but I could hardly miss the opportunity to comment on the latest Notice to Stakeholders, this one dealing with "EU rules on animal health and welfare and public health related to the movement of live animals.

In a very specific context, I wrote about this on 2 February 2017, drawing attention to the effects of Brexit on horse racing. In particular, I referred to the tripartite agreement on the movement and trade of horses between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, noting that this could cease once we left the EU, with a devastating on racing in all three countries – and especially Ireland.

As always when writing such pieces, I wasn't relying on a press release from the industry concerned, or official notices from the EU or any of the governments involved. I worked it out for myself and posted the results of my research, often being the first to do so in the fields I addressed.

On this one, I was writing about an industry worth £3.45 billion to the UK economy, employing (directly and indirectly) 85,000 people and underpinning a £12.6 billion gambling market. I hadn't worked out its value to Ireland, but it had to be substantial, making this an issue of some importance.

Although Booker followed it up in his column, only a few days later – in the days before the paper had eviscerated his column and consigned it to the obscurity of the review section – what was remarkable was the lack of interest shown by the rest of the media.

This was genuinely new information, on a significant industry which had a high level of public interest and which, with the advent of Brexit, could be very seriously damaged. Yet, there was no reaction, either to my blogpost or Booker's piece.

Since then there have been some half-hearted pieces in the Irish press, and even some reports which in August last year were picking up the broader issues on live animal movement. That was occasioned by the Dublin Horse Show, which hosted a "Brexit equine forum", leading to the Irish Times headlining a story with "Brexit poses 'formidable' challenges for Irish equine industry".

Elsewhere, we had the Irish Independent running a story headed: "Post-Brexit border checks on animals at ports 'a nightmare scenario'", which had John Melville, superintending veterinary inspector at the Irish Department of Agriculture, outlining the nature of the coming problems.

Despite all that, even the Irish have never given the issue the attention it deserved and, even to this day, that remains the case. However, this is the day that we have absolute confirmation from the European Commission that, amongst other things, the tripartite agreement will no longer apply to the EU following Brexit, putting the Irish and UK horse racing industries seriously at risk.

For sure, Armageddon may well be delayed if a transitional agreement is concluded but, as tensions build over the Irish border question, that is by no means a done deal. Come the end of March next year, all horses may have to be subject to expensive veterinary checks before being sent to EU destinations and, on entry to the EU, must be re-examined in border inspection posts.

Such checks, which will also extend to foods of animal origin - with separate checks for plants and plant-based foods and other materials - will, as John Melville warned, constitute a "nightmare scenario". Yet, on the very day that we see the Notice to Stakeholders issued, we have the stupid arse Alexander Johnson equate the Irish border to the dividing line between the London boroughs of Westminster and Camden.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the fool dismissed the need for a hard border post-Brexit in Ireland, saying: "We think that we can have very efficient facilitation systems to make sure that there's no need for a hard border, excessive checks at the frontier".

He added: "There's no border between Camden and Westminster but when I was Mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between these two boroughs without any need for border checks whatsoever".

Latterly, this vain fool is still arguing that we can rely largely on "electronic paperwork" at the border, based on the experience of HMRC checking only four percent of consignments arriving from third countries.

This again is an area where the media in general have been less than stellar in their coverage, failing to highlight the extent of sanitary and phytosanitary checks that will have to be carried out, a failure shared by the politicians and particularly those in the select committees.

One can hazard that, if the outcome of leaving the Single Market had been reported properly, we would not be seeing anything like the volume of stupidity we're experiencing on customs unions. Clearly, the requirement for sanitary and phytosanitary checks is entirely unaffected by customs union agreements which, in itself, means that the hard border becomes a reality even with a fully-fledged customs union between the EU and the UK.

What it is about this issue which seems to addle the brains of our politico-media establishment is beyond mortal comprehension. But the collective seems incapable of understanding that there will need to be a whole range of physical checks at the border, once we leave the Single Market. Electronic checks, and even beyond the border inspections, are no substitute.

To an extent, though, the message is getting through and Johnson is no longer guaranteed the free ride on which he used to be able to rely. Thus we have the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith branding the foreign secretary's comments as "typically facile and thoughtless". However, this is one of Labour's shadow cabinet ministers, speaking the day after his leader plumped for membership of a customs union to help avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Less compromised was SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who resorted to the tweet machine to declare that when Johnson "decides to come down from the other planet that he clearly inhabits he's welcome to come and actually visit the Irish border".

Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, was equally direct. The comments show, he said, that "this country is not in safe hands". Once again, he added, "the Foreign Secretary has shown why he shouldn't be allowed out of the house to talk about foreign affairs".

"He has revealed a complete lack of understanding of the complexities and history of the Northern Irish border. It is one of the major outstanding issues of Brexit negotiations and one of our most senior Cabinet Ministers hasn't even bothered to read his briefing notes".

Today, via the European Commission, we expect to see the fruits of that lack of understanding, which spreads right across the entire political domain. There is no single Westminster politician who has publicly demonstrated a grasp of the Irish border issues.

But even then, we have the Irish Times headlining: "NI to effectively remain in EU customs union after Brexit", with reference to adhering to Single Market rules only coming in later. The spell of the customs union is very hard to break.

However, the paper is talking about maintaining a "common regulatory area" on the island of Ireland. Connelly, writing for RTÉ talks of Northern Ireland remaining part of the EU's customs territory, post Brexit, with an allusion to a "single regulatory area". They amount to the same thing, comprising the essence of the Single Market solution. In particular, the Commission is to propose that EU law on animal health and related matters is applied to north and south, paving the way for a "wet" border in the Irish Sea.

Thus, slowly, inexorably, it seems that Mrs May is being squeezed into a workable solution, with goods crossing the Irish Sea from the mainland to Ireland having to be checked by joint EU-UK inspection teams.

How the DUP will react when the chips are down isn't yet known and, for all their huffing and puffing, the "ultras" are also an unknown factor. With Corbyn's Labour Party apparently gaining strength over Brexit, they are not necessarily going to risk bringing down the May government and triggering a general election.

Yet, the implications are profound. The "independent" UK will require the permission of EU officials, stationed on its sovereign territory, before it can permit the movement of goods from one part of the UK to another. If the politicians are even capable of understanding the implications of this, then it could prove too much for some to bear.

The hints are already there of troubles to come. Mrs May herself is reported to be ready to warn the EU that she will not sign up to "anything that threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK".

"This is a draft negotiating position by the EU and not a final, binding text", says a senior government source. "We are fully committed to implementing the December agreement, but the EU should be absolutely clear that the prime minister is not going to sign up to anything that threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK or its common market".

Sales of popcorn look set to soar.

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