By Tony Connelly
Irish and EU officials have reached a draft agreement to limit the impact of Brexit on the movement of Irish food products and live animals into the rest of the EU via the UK land bridge, RTÉ News has learned.
As a result of the agreement, officials say Irish food exports will be able to access "green lanes" when they come off ferries traveling from British to continental ports.
The deal, which must still be approved by member states, will require a change in EU rules governing the surveillance of food coming into the single market.
Without the agreement, officials say food and live animal exports from Ireland would have faced a significant increase in costs, delays and paperwork, and some Dutch ports might have become off-limits to live exports altogether.
This would have created a risk to the flow of Irish food and live animal exports to the continent, say officials.
The President of the Irish Farmers Association, Tim Cullinan, has welcomed the progress, describing it as "significant".
Mr Cullinan said: "It is crucial that there are no barriers to trade or additional costs arising from Britain's exit from the EU.
"Live animal exports are particularly important for Irish farmers to put more competition into our beef sector".
He added that while "precise details" of what is proposed have yet to be revealed and approved by member states, the news coming from the talks is "encouraging".
According to Bord Bia, 35% of Irish food and drink exports worth €13bn went to the single market last year, up 7% on 2018, and surpassing the UK for the first time.
The set of agreements follows weeks of behind-the-scenes technical and political negotiations which saw the Irish Government seek the support of Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
With the UK as an EU member there were no checks or controls on Irish food exports at European ports after they transited the UK.
There were minimal formalities, too, for live animals.
However, once the Brexit transition period expires at the end of December, Irish live animal and food exports transiting the UK will be arriving in European ports from a third country.
Most goods transiting from one part of the EU to another through a third country will be managed under the global transit scheme known as the New Computerised Transit System (NCTS).
This will limit formalities on Irish industrial goods transiting through Britain. However, the regime for food and live animals comes under a different set of rules.
Irish and EU officials had been discussing the problem in the run up to 31 October last year, when it looked as if the UK might leave the EU without concluding a Withdrawal Agreement.
However, the issue for Ireland became complicated by the entry into force in December of a more robust set of EU rules governing agri-food and live animals.
That legislation, known as the Official Controls Regulation (OCR), requires stricter pre-notification by traders of agri-food and live animals entering the EU from outside.
This would have meant layers of extra paperwork and costs on goods that were, in reality, moving from one part of the EU single market to another.
The OCR legislation was prompted by repeated food safety scandals and had taken several years to evolve.
Officials say the legislation did not anticipate the reality of the Brexit Referendum in 2016.
While the European Commission was aware of Irish concerns, Dublin believed the issue still had not been resolved, with the transition period coming to an end in just over six months' time.
When Irish officials raised the issue with the European Commission it is understood the Commission was initially unmoved by Irish concerns.
Then six weeks ago the Department of Foreign Affairs raised the matter politically through a number of EU capitals and approached Michel Barnier's European Commission Task Force.
The government argued that since Mr Barnier's negotiating mandate on the future EU-UK relationship explicitly acknowledges the geographical challenges facing Ireland in physically accessing the rest of the EU single market, then there was an obligation on Brussels to find a solution.
Under the new OCR legislation, both live animals and food products arriving via the UK land bridge would have been subject to the EU's digital pre-notification system known as TRACES.
While that system has been used for several years for live animals entering the continent via the UK, it would be the first time it was used for agri-food products.
However, using TRACES for such exports would have meant each product requiring a separate certificate, as well as other onerous procedures.
Officials say this would have been a "massive" problem for trailers from Ireland containing mixed food consignments.
"You would have to have a cert for each type of animal product, so you'd have to have a dairy cert for your butter, you'd have to have a meat cert for your meat," one official familiar with the negotiations told RTÉ News.
"So big consignments were going to be a massive issue."
Ireland circulated a working paper, seen by RTÉ News, to the member states involved - Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands - and to the European Commission setting out a proposed workaround.
There followed a meeting at technical level between EU veterinary officials and officials from the five member states involved.
As a result the Commission agreed to change the rules, so that the TRACES system would be exchanged for an alternative IT system.
This will effectively mean a less onerous pre-notification and certification regime, and will mean Irish food trucks being "green-lighted" at European ports.
"That work is being done on a technical level and there doesn't seem to be any issue," one EU official told RTÉ News. "We've found solutions to all the issues raised by Ireland."
The Commission has agreed to a further flexibility for Irish live animals arriving at Dutch ports via the UK.
Under EU rules, live animals arriving at an EU port from a third country must be checked at a licensed Border Control Post (BCP), which is qualified to provide veterinary inspections and other procedures.
However, Dutch ports are privately owned and are not registered as BCPs that are qualified to receive and inspect live animals.
As part of the agreement, Dutch ports will be permitted to receive and process Irish live animals coming from the UK even if they are not licensed to do so, and even if they are inspected in premises set apart from the port.
Member states have also agreed to waive the fees that would be applied in such circumstances, although this will require a change in legislation by the Belgian government.
The agreements will go to a technical committee of member state officials next week to be examined.
Although all 27 member states must approve the measures, Irish officials suggest there should be no significant resistance.
However, while the arrangements will smooth the passage of Irish consignments when they leave the UK, the question of what happens to Irish trucks on the UK land bridge itself remains subject to the ongoing EU-UK negotiations on the future relationship.
Some 80% of Irish exports to the EU and the rest of the world are thought to transit the UK.
Irish officials have long been concerned that Irish trucks, containing single market goods destined for other parts of the single market, will end up in haulage bottlenecks at Dover and other ports, mixed in with UK trucks which will be third country consignments.
It is understood this issue will not be tackled until the overall free trade agreement between the EU and UK has taken shape, if at all, later this year.
SOURCE - RTE News