You Can’t Eat Sovereignty

Jan. 14, 2021

The British food industry grapples with Brexit.

Let’s take a break from America’s political problems and look across the Atlantic at someone else’s: The United Kingdom’s struggles with Brexit and its effects on the nation’s food industry.

To briefly recap what you probably already know: The UK voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, on the grounds that EU regulations were stifling Britain and depriving it of sovereignty. That vote was reaffirmed by the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister in 2019.

Johnson had been a leading proponent of Brexit; as a newspaperman, he had milked the supposed absurdities of EU regulations for one column after another. He and his Conservative Party won on a platform of “Get Brexit Done.” (It didn’t help that their leading opponent, the Labour Party, never could make up its mind what its attitude toward Brexit was. A clear message will beat a muddled one every time.) There followed protracted, painful negotiations with the EU over a new trade deal, which was concluded just before the end-of-year deadline.

In terms of the food industry, the deal seems decidedly one-sided.

Britain is allowing in shipments of food from the EU with no tariff, but there’s still a great deal of red tape – enough so that some international carriers are refusing to take loads to the UK. The situation is dire enough so that British authorities are considering an exception that would let trucks carrying groceries for large supermarket chains jump to the head of the line.

Things are worse in Northern Ireland, which had been a big sticking point in the negotiations. The problem is that Northern Ireland (part of the UK) shares an unsecured border with the Republic of Ireland (an EU member). Closing the border wasn’t an option; no one wanted to fight the Irish War of Independence all over again. The EU proposed an “Irish backstop” – a requirement that all goods shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland conform to EU regulations. After a lot of bluster saying they would never, ever agree to that, the British negotiators quietly agreed to it.

Which is why haulers bringing food to Northern Ireland have to jump through hoops. It’s especially bad with mixed loads that contain animal products; these have to be inspected, certified, then re-inspected and re-certified every time the load gets added to. That’s leading to, you guessed it, haulers refusing to come to Northern Ireland.

And then there are Britain’s food exporters. They don’t have to pay tariffs to sell to the EU, but they are now subject to all kinds of regulations and red tape, especially with animal products. Just like goods going the other way, mixed truckloads are a particular problem. It’s gotten so bad that there have been reports of Dutch border guards confiscating sandwiches because they contain meat.

Are you seeing a pattern here? It’s hard to think of one British citizen, whether businessperson or consumer, who is seeing any tangible benefit from Brexit’s effect on food policy. All the Brexit trade deal gave Britain was the right to export and import food to and from the EU without tariffs – which it already had – while adding the trouble and expense of navigating a new bureaucracy.

It’s enough to make you think that installing a charismatic buffoon with funny hair as your head of state isn’t a good idea.