EU decries post-Brexit border controls as ‘not fit for purpose’
The European Commission has condemned the quality of checks on goods coming into the EU via the Ireland-UK border, claiming they fail to provide “sufficient assurances” that such items comply with regulations.
The European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Safety has published a report following an investigation carried out over nine-day from 21 to 30 June 2021 into the state of border controls, looking specifically at checks on transported animals, products of animal origin, plant products and other items of non-animal origin.
Staff shortages were the main cause of substandard quality checks at the border, the European Commission’s report found.
During the investigation, the Department for Agricultural, Environmental and Rural Affairs (DAERA) confirmed almost 60% of approved official veterinarian roles were unoccupied.
Furthermore, modelling conducted by the department suggested an additional 15 portal inspectors, seven plant health inspectors and six administration staff were also required to keep operations running optimally.
The short staffing was owed to a halt on recruitment put in place in February 2021, according to the report. When questioned by the European Commission, DAERA stated it would take between six and nine months before the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland lifted the recruitment freeze.
Short staffing resulted in many of the checks expected not being properly completed – either done to a poor standard or not at all.
The report said: “The substantial lack of human resources, combined with no obvious intention to address this, critically undermines the capability and capacity of the official control system.”
DAERA workers informed investigators the UK Government had unilaterally introduced a “temporary arrangement” which set out what it termed “pragmatic arrangements” for items crossing the border like agricultural and forestry machinery, plants, bulbs and vegetables.
As a result, these items were imported into the EU without the proper certification and checks having taken place.
The audit also found issue when it came to fees and charging done for checks on behalf of the UK Government. Whilst countries are charged fees for checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland, the same charges are not applied to items coming from Britain into Northern Ireland. This runs against EU regulations. DAERA responded by saying that “at the time of the Commission control, the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the Northern Ireland Executive planned to refer the issue to the Executive, due to the possible impact to society if such charges were to be introduced. DAERA did not know when this referral would be made.”
Additionally, labelling issues were found throughout border control. Banned meats and supermarket goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland did not bear the required “These products from the United Kingdom may not be marketed outside Northern Ireland” label.
Failure to carry out checks on undeclared goods and animals was another issue found to be in breach of EU regulations during the European Commission’s inspection.
Concluding, the report said: “In short, the system is not fit for purpose, does not comply with EU rules and cannot provide sufficient assurances that only compliant animals and SPS goods are permitted to enter the EU SPS area through the designated border control posts in Northern Ireland.”
Eight recommendations have been made by the EU Commission in a bid to improve the situation at the Northern Irish border. They are tied directly to the audit’s findings.
These recommendations include the provision of a sufficient number of properly trained staff at border control posts, the adequate checking of animals passing through the system and the making sure that all fees and charges for official controls performed on animals and SPS goods are collected.
In response to the findings of the audit, the authorities involved acknowledged the criticisms – but also highlighted a number of ongoing difficulties, such as the high number of checks required and staff shortages.
UK exports to Europe are already in a fragile position, with the Food and Drink Federation reporting there was a 16% drop in exports in 2021. A report from April 2021 by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee further illustrated the tenuous situation, claiming British seafood and meat businesses might begin moving to Europe in a bid to avoid so-called “Brexit red tape”.
The movement of goods from Europe to the UK has also proved more difficult post-Brexit – and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Food availability, has been a pressing issue since the country cut ties with the EU, officially last year.