While it was a relief to see the emergence of an agreement between Prime Minister Boris Johnston and the EU last week, it is still not clear just what it means for our food and drink member companies and especially for their efforts to grow sales in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, our two most important markets.
And who really knows how the EU, and indeed Parliament, will react to the mixed signals from Downing Street on the request for a further delay in Britain’s exit at the end of the month. The proposed agreement may not even pass parliamentary scrutiny. What happens then? Our greatest concern is that the outcome could still be a no-deal exit that would be catastrophic for the agri-food industry here and the wider economy. Such a leap into the unknown must be avoided at all costs.
Our focus has always been – and will continue to be – on maintaining open access for our companies to both crucially important markets. We are also conscious of the need to protect the current and future wellbeing of the local farming industry upon which so many of our food companies depend…and which has provided so many food and drink innovations. It seems that what is being proposed in the agreement is overly bureaucratic and still lacking in clarity.
The agreement does give us something to work with, to discuss and amend where necessary. While it’s certainly not all we would have wished, it does appear to offer continuing access to the EU markets as well as Great Britain. There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure continuing free trade for our food and drink companies. There’s a role for our politicians in working through the detail to ensure the best for Northern Ireland. It would be good to see the Assembly making a meaningful contribution to this process.
The biggest danger may be that in setting Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK our food and drink products are seen in Britain as ‘different’. How the agreement impacts ingredients being sourced by our companies from abroad is also far from clear. In addition, we remain concerned over the agreement resulting in a flood of food products from other countries not required to apply the same standards as local companies have long had to implement.
Clarity is required on Northern Ireland’s position in regard to any future trade deals negotiated by our government especially with the Republic of Ireland, our biggest single export market. Difficulties in entering the Irish market could have an adverse impact on smaller food processors in particular.
I believe that it is in the best interests of our companies, both large and small, to have the easiest possible access to Great Britain and the EU. The agreement certainly appears to maintain unfettered access to the EU including Ireland for our products.
Our industry must continue to do everything possible to promote the best interests of those farmers, producers and those in our vibrant hospitality sectors making such an impressive contribution to the economy and its future wellbeing.