Richard North, 20/03/2021  

When it really gets going, there is no end to the drivel that the Financial Times can produce. Its latest misguided intervention, in the hands of the egregious Peter Foster, is to inform us how the UK government can solve the Brexit stand-off over Northern Ireland.

Foster's miracle solution is a "Swiss-style veterinary agreement", which he asserts "would remove much of the red tape for UK food exporters at a stroke", a canard fully endorsed by former Friends of the Earth lobbyist Sam Lowe.

Lowe thinks the UK should re-consider its decision to break completely free of EU rules, and also goes for the miracle solution, arguing that we should "re-enter" into negotiations on an EU-UK veterinary agreement, similar to Switzerland's.

With two of the more prominent Brexit bullshitters in full flow, this inevitably attracts the support of the Twitterati, such as David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen's University Belfast and a stark reminder that "professor" is a job title and not a qualification.

The one thing of which one can be certain is that, of all these latter-day enthusiasts for miracles, none of them have actually read – or even acquainted themselves – with this fabulous solution. And my absolute certainty is easily tested by the simple proposition that there is no such thing as a "Swiss-style veterinary agreement", as such.

For sure, the EU does enter into Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreements with a number of countries, within which it entertains specific veterinary agreements.

There was, for instance, the EU/Canada veterinary agreement, adopted by the EU on 15 December 1998, still in force and now built into CETA, to be terminated when that treaty comes fully into force.

Then there is the EU-Mexico Veterinary agreement, built into the Economic Partnership, Political Coordination and Cooperation Agreement, and you can even have the EU-New Zealand Agreement, initially settled in 1996. But that only concerned trade in live animals and animal products.

As to Switzerland, there is indeed an agreement, signed in June 1999 and coming into force in June 2002. But this is styled as an agreement on "Trade on Agricultural Products", the original version extending to 218 pages, going way beyond just veterinary matters.

Thus, if the UK wanted a "Swiss-style veterinary agreement", it would have to buy into the whole package. With multiple amendments, it covers everything from plant health and animal feed, to trade in wine sector products, marketing standards on fruit and vegetables, animal health and zootechnical measures applicable to trade in live animals and animal products.

Foster, who quite evidently, has no real idea of the nature of what he is advocating, remarks that Frost asserts that the beating heart of his Brexit is a "Magna Carta tradition" in which freeborn Englishmen are instinctively opposed to the notion that "other people set laws we have to live by".

In the case of the Northern Ireland protocol, though, the cost of reclaiming sovereignty for one food service company came in at about £150 for every consignment of goods sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, or about £50,000 since January.

But Foster also asserts that the rules are not impacting on voters, which begs an important question: if the voters are largely oblivious to the disruptions caused by Frost's "Magna Carta" Brexit, then would they really notice if the government took practical steps to remove them?

It is here that he argues that we should sign a "Swiss-style veterinary agreement" with the EU. At a stroke, he says, that would remove almost all the bureaucratic pain being faced by UK food exporters. He claims it would also address the most costly and intractable elements of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Sam Lowe claims that such a deal would leave the UK "permanently bound to EU food hygiene rules", but in return there would be no more need for export health certificates and the reams of other red tape currently strangling UK businesses.

Says Foster, no one apart from those directly affected, really cares about food hygiene rules. He asks, "Is anyone really sitting in the pub, thumping the bar and moaning that their Magna Carta rights have been traduced because Cornish lobstermen are following EU phytosanitary rules?", then flatly stating, "I'd hazard not".

But the point is that a simple veterinary agreement would not remove "almost all the bureaucratic pain being faced by UK food exporters". Where an agreement is confined only to "hygiene rules" – as Canada and Mexico have found - EHCs are still required, the products still have to be submitted to Border Control Posts for inspection and fees are still charged.

Only in the exceptional circumstances of New Zealand are the rates of inspection (and the fees) reduced, but all the other controls apply and the products which New Zealand can export are severely limited.

When it comes to Switzerland – apart from Efta/EEA states - the arrangements are unique. Only this country (and Liechtenstein, which is treated as part of Switzerland for the purpose of the controls) outside the EEA is allowed to import meat and other animal products without subjecting consignments to border inspection.

This, however, is because, as a landlocked country, all imports either originate from Union producers or, when bought from third countries, have to be routed via Union border control posts.

EU Member States, therefore, are responsible for monitoring compliance with production conditions and requirements, and in particular statutory inspections and the issuing of health certificates.

Furthermore, the Swiss Federal authorities have agreed to allow the European Commission to take the responsibility for overall coordination, inspections/audits of inspection systems and the necessary legislative action to ensure uniform application of standards and requirements within the Single Market.

This is on top of the Swiss authorities adopting a huge tranche of Single Market, Animal Health and Plant Health law. The EU and the Swiss also maintain a joint veterinary committee to coordinate actions, and the Swiss adopt the EU's surveillance and administration systems, including TRACES. Sharing of information is mandatory.

Each party is required to carry out checks at originating establishments, to ensure that they fulfil their obligations and that products to be put on the market comply with the legislative provisions. Checks at destinations may also be carried out. And yet, for all that, EHCs are still required.

Apart from the total integration of a very wide range of legislation, systems and administrative procedures, what makes Switzerland special is that, because of its landlocked character, goods coming from inside Swiss territory will always comply with EU law (there are special arrangements for air freight) and goods coming into Switzerland (air freight aside) have to pass through Union BCPs.

It is because of this, as much as anything else, that border checks can be reduced or, in most cases, eliminated. The situation for the UK – with its much wider access to third country products – is not analogous. Furthermore, Switzerland may only import products from third countries approved by the Commission.

Putting this all together, even if the UK could negotiate a "Swiss-style" agreement with the EU, it is unlikely that the conditions would meet Frost's "Magna Carta" Brexit criteria. The whole of UK agriculture and food production would be subject to EU law, with implementation coordinated by the Commission, working through a standing joint committee.

On the other hand, because of the special circumstances of the Swiss, it is extremely unlikely that the EU would be prepared to make the same concessions to the UK. Quite simply, a "Swiss-style" agreement is unlikely to be on offer.

What is remarkable here, though, is the continued inability of the trade commentariat to get to grips with the EU's "official control" regime, covering animals, plants and their related products. Too often, these people are prepared to make wild assumptions, which lack any acquaintance with reality, having failed to grasp the complexities of this specialist branch of EU law.

And yet, we will keep hearing about "Swiss-style" options, from all manner of self-important persons, even though they are not and never will be a practical proposition.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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