Richard North, 01/03/2021  

I missed a couple of "Brexit" pieces in the legacy media yesterday, not least one in the Mail on Sunday. This was a classic Mail rant, with one of those long headlines which tell enough of the story without their readers having to dip into the main copy. It read:
How Brussels has launched a spiteful war on our glorious snowdrops and rhododendrons: Petty and vindictive even by EU standards, they're banning the import of plants that have touched British soil - putting jobs at risk and raising prices in garden centres.
When I first looked at this, I thought that this might be another instance where the UK was taking a "hit" from leaving the Single Market, in which case the paper would be partly author of our misfortunes.

After all, at a time when it really mattered, one of the key cheerleaders for the anti-EEA brigade has been the Mail, publishing in December 2018 an issue-illiterate diatribe from Dominic Lawson against the Norway option.

But, looking at the EU law, two things emerge. Firstly, the legislation is not part of the Single Market acquis. Two main laws apply: the 101-page Regulation (EU) 2016/2031 of 26 October 2016 on protective measures against pests of plants; and the very much longer Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/2072 of 28 November 2019, establishing uniform conditions for the implementation of Regulation (EU) 2016/2031, running to 279 pages. Neither are EEA relevant.

The second thing to emerge is how recent these laws are, both of them having taken effect on 14 December 2019 – only shortly before the UK left the EU. The timing is such that these laws, amounting to a major revision of the EU's plant health laws, would have had no formal input from the UK, which ceased to have any formal legislative role in the EU, the moment the Article 50 papers were lodged on 29 March 2017.

As to the Mail on Sunday's assertion that the EU is "banning" British soil, this is essentially true. The prohibition is set out in Annex VII of Regulation (EU) 2019/2072, which lists "plants, plant products and other objects whose introduction into the Union from certain third countries is prohibited".

Point 19 refers, where "soil as such consisting in part of solid organic substances" from "third countries other than Switzerland" is specifically prohibited. According to Point 20, the import of all organic growing media - apart from peat or coconut fibre, previously not used for growing of plants or for any agricultural purposes – is prohibited.

Nevertheless, we were warned about what would happen in the event of the transition period ending, without a covering agreement on phytosanitary issues, the latest advice published by the Commission in a revised Notice to Stakeholders on 13 March 2020 – the original having been published on 21 March 2018.

What could then have happened during the TCA negotiations was that Frost and his merry men could have sought an equivalence agreement. There is specific provision for that in of Regulation (EU) 2016/2031, Annex II, Section 2, which states:
Measures taken to manage the risk of a pest shall not be applied in such a way as to constitute either a means of arbitrary or unjustified discrimination or a disguised restriction, particularly on international trade. They shall be no more stringent for third countries than measures applied to that same pest if present within the Union territory, if third countries can demonstrate that they have the same phytosanitary status and apply identical or equivalent phytosanitary measures.
This is essentially a copy-out of the WTO SPS Agreement and could have provided the foundations on which border controls between the UK and the EU were relaxed, in respect of plant health provisions. However, when it came to the TCA text, there was no mention of equivalence, and the die was cast.

Thus is opened the way for the Mail on Sunday report, which starts off by telling us that this period should be peak season for Joe Sharman (pictured), a man known as "Mr Snowdrop" and one of the biggest growers in the country. Sharman, whose customers include the Queen, sells thousands of bulbs from his Cambridgeshire nursery to buyers in the EU and beyond. He also drives vanloads to sell at snowdrop festivals in Germany. But, says the MoS, not this year. "At a stroke, draconian EU regulations have wiped out half of his business".
The punitive new rules, which treat British growers as if they were located thousands of miles away in China or Brazil, have all but ended his export business. They have even prevented deliveries of snowdrops and other plants to homes and garden centres in Northern Ireland, which, following the Brexit agreement, remains under EU trade rules.

So extraordinary are the regulations that a plant that has so much as touched the soil of Great Britain can never be exported to the EU or any part of Ireland. No one has calculated the total cost of the regulatory assault, but what is certain is that British horticulture has seen millions of pounds wiped from its profits overnight.
Here, the paper is conflating separate issues, but the essence of what it conveys is correct. The tolerance for the presence of propagating material entrained with Snowdrop bulbs is set at zero. Joe Sharman is well and truly stymied.

But, says the MoS, to him it's an act of spite, particularly as British plants have been grown to exactly the same standards as those in the EU for many years. "I've had German customers in tears. These people have been buying from me since 1988 – they're my friends", Sharman says. "I've shed tears, too. I never thought I'd have to deal with this. I’m now hoping the EU leaders get off their high horse and let us trade".

On top of this, we are told that "the sheer weight of regulation and the stringent detail – some of it bizarre – make it all but impossible for British growers to turn a profit".

Under what the MoS insists are "new" post-Brexit rules, Britain is treated as a "third country" for horticulture, which means that for every consignment of plants – be it one bulb or one million – an expensive "phytosanitary" safety certificate is required, stating that the goods are soil- and pest-free.

These are issued by an inspector from the government's Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) at a cost of £127.60 per every half-hour spent on the consignment. The certificate itself then costs a further £25.52.

Species such as snowdrops are more tightly regulated. Controlled by CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – snowdrop bulbs require additional permits at a cost of £74 per order.

Then come the rules about soil, says the paper. Plants that have been grown in, or have ever touched, British earth can no longer be sent either to the 27 EU countries or to Northern Ireland because of the supposed potential risk of pests and disease. Even pots that have been placed on or touched the ground are deemed unsafe.

With words such as "infuriating", and references to "harsh rules" and their "sheer complexity", especially in relation to the rules applying to Northern Ireland, we are left in no doubt that this is the "spiteful" EU at its worst – although none of the growers cited actually make that charge.

However, the rules are regarded as "impossible to comply with", although it is also claimed that the UK is treating plant imports from the EU under the same rules as before. This seems to suggest that there are different rules in force, which is not the case. The EU regulations have been adopted by the UK and are part of the statute book. They are simply not being applied.

But, while one can sympathise with the growers who are caught up in this nightmare, it has to be said that these rules apply to all other third countries. If they were to be any different, Frost should have sought equivalence for the UK, and many of the problems could have been avoided.

Clearly, the rush to get a deal left little time for such considerations – another aspect of Boris's botched Brexit, that is so damaging British business. But such is that "take" from the MoS that "Boris" gets a free pass. This is a "spiteful" action by a "petty and vindictive" EU, the only Tory-approved way that Brexit can be reported.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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