I have been rather concerned for a while that UK exports of food to the EU could come to a crashing halt on the day of Brexit. The way trade works things are generally done on a tit for tat basis, so if one side rejects all shipments of a particular category the other side will do the same until the problem is solved. Given that the UK requires a lot of food imports to feed the population this would mean that the country is many millions of meals per day short of the requirement. I am not sure that things will go that wrong, but it really is the scale of what is being messed about with here.
Why would I think exports are screwed? Well, because the EU don’t keep their rules a secret. If you want to import food of animal origin to the EU your country has to have a competent authority, and that competent authority has to maintain a list of authorised establishments by notifying the EU of changes to the list. 100% of all food imports are given a document check to ensure they come from an authorised establishment and the goods must be presented at a border inspection post (BIP) on entry to the EU. You can read about what goes on at a BIP in the manual. The current UK manual is fine, all member states will have one more or less the same. Note that all of this applies if we have a deal or if we flounce out with no-deal.
So much for the rules. We just follow them and all good right? Well, to get a new competent authority you first have to be evaluated by the DG Health and Food Safety (also known as DG SANTE) they publish their work programme of inspections and the UK isn’t on it. Once the competent authority is approved it can submit lists of authorised establishments. These lists are circulated and if there are no objections within 20 days the list is published and comes into force 10 days later. This means that there is an absolute minimum of 30 days before the UK starts to get any products of animal origin into the EU.
Well maybe the UK has a plan they have been discussing with the EU? Well I asked DEFRA through a freedom of information request back in 2017 to disclose any correspondence relating to post-Brexit food export authorisation. They had none. I asked again at the end of last year and they directed me to the Food Standards Agency. So I asked the FSA, and they revealed that the UK will have three competent authorities (each needing separate evaluation by DG SANTE)
The FSA will be the competent authority for England and Wales, DEARA for Northern Ireland and FSS for Scotland.
They also don’t have a prepared list of establishments on the right form, and they have had no correspondence with DG SANTE on an expedited approval.
This doesn’t look good for the chances of exporting food in April at least. It could take many months longer if the competent authority evaluation is not done fast. If UK exports are stopped will free flowing imports still be permitted? What are our rules actually going to be? Will imports to the UK have to go to a UK BIP? All interesting questions that nobody appears to know the answer to.
Yes, I do know that all of the above relates to restrictions on our exports, which on the face of it doesn’t leave us millions of meals per day short of the requirement, but these things lead to retaliations. Would the government cut off our own food supply just to spite the EU? Possibly.
Update: I have been asked about how long it takes for the competent authority approval, well that is defined in regulation 854/2004 Article 11 and that indicates that it could be done instantly as a desk exercise on the optimistic basis that our current status as a member state means we meet the requirements the EU imposes on third countries. This is optimism at the full “Prosecco producers and BMW will intervene in the negotiations” level, but it appears to be technically plausible. I can’t see a shortcut to the 30 working days after approval before our list of establishments comes into force.