Brexit talks hurtling towards new crisis point, says Irish foreign minister

Brexit talks are hurtling to another crisis point unless progress is made in the next two rounds of talks, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has said.

His warning comes as industry analysis of deliveries from Britain to high-street supermarket chains in Northern Ireland found that firms could incur costs of more than £100,000 per lorry unless the special Brexit arrangements for the region were sorted out.

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The new protocols involving customs and food certification checks begin in January next year whether the UK’s future relationship with the EU is agreed or not.

Ireland has expressed renewed concerns that there would not be a trade deal that could at least mitigate some of the worst effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

Coveney said progress in talks over the future relationship between the European Union and UK “has not been good”.

“Unless there is significant progress in those negotiating rounds then I think we are going to reach yet another crisis point in the Brexit negotiations, which from the Irish point of view is very, very serious,” he told RTE’s Sean O’Rourke show.

The current talks relate to the future relationship with the EU centring on not just trade, but data, medical and scientific research, security and policing with a December deadline.

The transition period can be extended and many have called for an extension because of the coronavirus pandemic. Downing Street has recently and repeatedly said the UK does not need an extension.

But the rules for Northern Ireland involving customs, security and health checks on animal and food products entering Northern Ireland kick in whether the UK and the EU strike an agreement about their future relationship or not.

Aodhán Connelly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), said it was deeply concerned that the detail of the protocol that was signed off by the UK and the EU as part of the withdrawal agreement last year had not been worked out.

“Quite frankly, I can’t see how we will be ready by the end of the year. We have no clarity on how this protocol is going to work and it is May. We have seven months to get this sorted and not only have we had no guidance but we have had no conversations with government or Whitehall,” he said.

Under the protocol, there will be new controls and checks on goods entering the region from the rest of the UK in order to avoid checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland.

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NIRC calculated the cost of a truck delivering groceries to a household name supermarket in Northern Ireland.

About 1,400 product types were found to be on the truck, all of which, under the normal EU rules for trade with third countries, would require an entry summary declaration form, which would cost “between £15 and £56” per declaration or between £21,000 and £79,000 for the lorry load.

Of the 1,400 goods, 500 were food lines of animal or plant origin, which would require a health certificate at £200 each.

“All of this is the worst case scenario but it illustrates the scale of the problem. Our hope is that there is some sort of free-trade agreement or agreement of some sort that it won’t come to pass,” he said.

Seamus Leheny, the policy manager at the Freight Transport Association Northern Ireland, said the problem would be easily solved if “derogations and mitigations were put in place”.

But he said that since the deal was agreed last October, there had been no engagement on the detail and just general promises of “unfettered access”.

Business leaders in Northern Ireland have been asking for the revival of a working group that examined “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border at the now defunct Department for Exiting the EU to tease out the new rules for Northern Ireland.

“We have been asking for this since October and have heard nothing,” said Connolly.

Business leaders have also expressed frustration over the row about the UK rejecting an EU request to have an office presence in Belfast.

“It makes sense if the EU have a formal office. It means if something goes wrong, say in Belfast port, we can call them and have someone sort it out or investigate it locally rather than having to phone someone down in Dublin and get them to come up. They have just turned this into a political football,” said Leheny.

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