Following reports that the UK is edging closer to adopting a customs union with the European Union as the model for the future relationship, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has warned that a customs union alone will not solve all of the issues around the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Agreeing a customs union with the EU would mean the continuation of zero tariffs on goods being traded across the Irish border. Whilst alleviating concerns around tariffs and customs, this arrangement would do nothing to resolve the key issue of the need for product safety and standards checks, especially for food.
It is the UK’s current membership of the single market that harmonises safety and quality standards with the rest of the EU. Only by also remaining in the Single Market could the existing situation of zero checks on the Northern Irish border largely continue in its current form.
If the UK were to leave the Single Market and solely strike a customs union with the EU, then other arrangements and deals would have to be made to avoid the need for new product standard checks at the border.
Gary McFarlane, Northern Ireland Director at CIEH, said: “The whole debate seems to have been focussed on tariffs and customs, and completely danced around the vital issue of food safety and standards. It’s critical that our politicians recognise and understand that safety and quality standards are ultimately about public protection.
“If the UK leaves the Single Market, the EU will insist on product standard checks for goods moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Although such checks may take place away from the border, in order to depoliticise the situation, these checks will still have to happen somewhere.
“To not do so would threaten the integrity and safety of the EU safety and standards model. It is a sad reality that criminals will seek to exploit any weaknesses that exist, and the lack of controls would represent such a weakness. The same is of course true for goods moving from Ireland to the UK via Northern Ireland. To have no controls would compromise public protection.
“Customs arrangements also do not obviate the need for new certification for any food products containing animal products moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland. Without appropriate arrangements agreed this will result in a very significant workload increase for both veterinarians and Environmental Health Professionals (EHPs) that cannot currently be resourced.
“This all poses significant challenges for many businesses. There is no way around these facts unless other arrangements are swiftly put in place.
“A customs union, or customs arrangements, alone are not enough to resolve the issues of the border in Ireland.”