Two years until final details will be sorted out

Today is the day when the UK officially says “we are leaving” to Europe.

The experts reckon that it will take two years for all the negotiators involved to sort the fine detail of the exit package, which the British government and the then EU-27 will then sign-off on. But, already, we know that a number of issues will remain unresolved come March 2019. One of these is the trading arrangement that will be put in place between Britain and Europe subsequent to Brexit taking legal effect.

It is now a working assumption that it will take at least five years for both parties to sort out the detail of a comprehensive trade deal. This means that the ‘gap years’ could see the introduction of strict World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs on business involving Britain and the EU. These, in turn, could heavily penalise food exports from Northern Ireland into Europe.

Meanwhile, EU Council president Donald Tusk has said that the UK must pay the EU a €60 billion ‘divorce settlement’ to Europe, as part of the final Brexit package. To put that in context, Britain’s net annual contribution to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget is a mere €3 billion. And this state of affairs was one of the key reasons why pressure had been building for the UK to leave the EU.

No doubt, the UK authorities will argue the bit out over the €60 billion figure. But its flagging up by Brussels at this stage points to a hard-line approach being taken by the EU authorities when they start arguing their case for an ‘equitable’ Brexit deal. And who knows what might happen if the French authorities – who are very sore at the outcome of the Brexit referendum – decide to flex their national muscle, once the formal negotiations get underway?

The worst of all worlds for agriculture would be its relegation to a fringe debating point within the context of the overall Brexit discussions. Yes, London will have responsibility for agreeing and funding the support package available to agriculture post-Brexit. But issues such as mutual recognition of animal health, plant health, quality assurance schemes and cross border trade matters within the island of Ireland cannot be left hanging up on the air.

All-in-all, the next two years should be more than interesting for those involved within Northern Ireland’s agri food industry!