EU Referendum

Brexit: a temple of ignorance


Over the past few months I have been dealing, virtually on a daily basis, with a famous Scottish cheesemaker, helping the owner resist attempts by the local authority to close down his operation.

One of the ploys adopted by the local authority was to threaten to remove his "establishment number" – a number allocated to his operation under EU law, which signifies that it has been approved under the relevant hygiene legislation.

The simple act of de-listing the premises means that it no longer officially exists. It, of course, continues to exist in physical form but without its establishment number, it does not exist on the list of approved premises. And without a separate, official existence, product cannot be legally sold and nothing can be exported.

This gets to the heart of the matter of our relationship with the EU. We are part of a vast bureaucracy – the reason why so many people want to leave. We may exist physically as a nation but, in EU law our only existence is that of a Member State, a status conferred by treaty.

When we leave the EU, we cease to exist – as a Member State. By default, we acquire a new status as a "third country". But, for many commodities, third countries cannot send produce to the EU until they are entered on the relevant list of approved nations. Until then, we don't exist.

This I have pointed out before, yet there are those who still believe that a smooth transition can be achieved without formal arrangements. When we leave, this vast bureaucracy is expected to act entirely out of character and ignore its own rules, just for the convenience of the United Kingdom.

The pervasive air of unreality further intensifies when select committees insist of inviting the wrong witnesses to their inquiries, asking the wrong questions and failing to understand the answers. A recent entry into the fray here is the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is conducting an inquiry on the future of the land border with the Republic of Ireland.

In its hearing last week it invited two "experts" on customs affairs, Michael Lux, EU customs and international trade lawyer; and Eric Pickett, EU customs and international trade lawyer, to acquaint the Committee with some of the problems that might arise with the Northern Ireland border.

Michael Lux used to work for the European Commission on customs affairs, but in this Committee session he was confronted by Jim Shannon, DUP member for Strangford in Northern Ireland. Shannon was concerned about the "very strong and influential agri-food sector", where four major firms, Willowbrook Foods, Mash Direct, Pritchitts and Rich Sauces, send perishable chilled foodstuffs across the border. Some of those companies do almost 35-40 percent of their trade in Ireland, supplying shops and stores.

He thus wanted to know from Mr Lux how we could ensure the seamless movement of perishable chilled goods across a border every morning, "as they do at Newry, and then down south to the central stores".

Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Social Democratic and Labour Party MP for Belfast South also had concerns about the movement of food. Beef, he said, may come from south to north. Lamb may go from north to south. Pigs come from south to north for processing. Milk goes all over the place.

Some of the milk, McDonnell said, moves across the border five times because it can be produced in the north and then collected into one big collection point south of the border. It can then be moved to a factory, back into the north again, and it can be part-processed there. It can go back to the south for further processing and all the rest of it.

What then transpired was yet another illustration of compartmentalisation. I remarked earlier about my Commission official who only did beef labelling regulations. And the trouble with Michael Lux is that he only does customs. He tells us:
All these trucks that bring goods to the other side from Ireland have to pass via an official crossing where customs is available. We can certainly talk about simplifications, yes. What I was saying is that there is no way that there are no formalities. Once that is accepted, we can talk about what simplifications can be made. As I said, for Ireland this is an export, so an export declaration must be made. It is electronic. The system is already electronic. At the border, the export must be closed. Each time a truck passes, for each truck the system must be closed. This can take place in minutes. If the customs official knows that it is always the same type of goods, he sees the truck and then gets the number of the export declaration and closes it. Yes, it is possible to do this in minutes.
What Lux doesn't address, though, is a small detail. The MPs were asking him about food consignments. In addition to customs checks, there must also be veterinary, etc., checks – of which he makes no mention.

Without labouring the point, let me refer you to COM(2010) 785 final, which describes how the system has to work. Different commodities, it tells us, pose different risks and are thus subject to specific import conditions and controls.

Live animals and products of animal origin (such as meat, eggs and fish) and animal products not intended for human consumption (such as semen and embryos) are considered to represent a high risk because they can be vectors for the transmission of diseases to both livestock and humans.

Thus, these can only enter the EU through approved border inspection posts (BIPs) under strictly harmonised import conditions. But, before the goods are allowed through, they have to be sourced from approved third countries and from approved or registered establishments within the approved countries.

Then, veterinary certificates must accompany consignments. These must be signed by the competent authority of the exporting country providing detailed information as to the public and animal health status of the products and their conformity with the EU’s import requirements.

Upon arrival, BIP staff must carry out mandatory controls including documentary, identity and physical checks to verify that the goods conform to their description and meet EU import conditions.

Physical checks are always required in the case of live animals however such checks may be reduced for animal products when they meet harmonised import conditions and when veterinary agreements - proving that the third country can offer the same or equivalent levels of safety to those of the EU.

Only once a consignment has satisfactorily undergone these checks is a Common Veterinary Entry Document (CVED) issued, allowing the goods to be released for free circulation.

Yet, as we pointed out here, if the UK dropped out of the negotiations, we would fall at the first hurdle. The UK would not be approved for export and, of course, there would be no approved establishments permitted to export. Just for fresh meat, the basic guidance is set out here. Worryingly, this also applies if we go for the FTA option, which is what Mrs May says she wants to do. The only way we avoid these hurdles altogether is if we stay in the Single Market (via the EEA).

But, even if all the hurdles are surmounted, there is still a minor problem for Irealnd. There are only three BIPs south of the internal border: Dublin port, Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport. For obvious reasons, there are no BIPs actually on the internal border.

As to the functioning of the BIPs, there is some more detail here (including structural and equipment requirements), and there is a helpful guide on dairy products here. But it doesn't stop there. Imports of live plants or plant products are also considered to be of high risk due to the introduction of new pests and plant diseases in the EU territory with potentially disastrous effects on crops and the natural environment.

Before they can be introduced into the Union, all live plants and certain plant products must be accompanied by an official phytosanitary certificate delivered by the competent authority of the third country in conformity with the model set out under the International Plant Protection Convention.

Plant health checks - consisting of documentary, identity and physical checks - are performed on all consignments of plants and regulated plant products at an approved Point of Entry. A derogation to carry out the physical checks at the place of destination can be granted by the national authorities under specific conditions, including the movement of the goods under customs supervision.

Customs authorities will not allow the importation of any plants and regulated plant products, unless proof has been supplied that the relevant phytosanitary checks have been carried out with satisfactory results. Then, certain food and feed of non-animal origin, for which a known or emerging risk is identified, are also subject to mandatory pre-import controls at Designated Points of Entry (DPE). These may include nuts and certain fruits or vegetables.

Commodities for which controls are necessary are determined on the basis of the latest information available with respect to the risk profile of the product. The list of these commodities and the applicable levels of controls are reviewed on a quarterly basis.

As in the case of animals and animal products, such commodities must undergo mandatory border checks and can only be released for free circulation in the Union on condition that the outcome of controls carried out is favourable.

As far as the rest of the food chain goes, fortunately, the EU considers that many foods do not pose an intrinsic risk to public, animal or plant health. Many so-called "shelf-stable" products (canned, processed, dried etc), composite products and many fruit and vegetables fall into this category. In these cases, controls on imports are carried out by the Member States on the basis of their multi-annual control plans and in the light of the potential risk identified by the Member States.

However, nothing of this has sullied the brains of our revered MPs, preserving the reputation of the House of Commons as a temple of ignorance. They may have approved the Brexit Bill, but they don't need to know anything about what's involved in leaving the EU.

Most of them have struggled hard to attain their current level of ignorance. Perhaps they should be allowed to wallow in it for a little while longer before they are finally forced to face reality.