Britain’s post-Brexit supply chain crisis could “cancel Christmas” and continue to cause food shortages well into 2022, industry leaders have warned.
Boris Johnson’s government has been urged to ease immigration rules so some EU citizens who left the UK during Brexit can return and help fill major gaps in the workforce.
The head of the Co-op supermarket said on Wednesday that current food shortages were the worst he had ever seen, while Iceland’s boss warned that supply disruption could see Christmas “cancelled” for some families this year.
Other food sector chiefs told The Independent they expected food supply problems to continue well into next year unless urgent action was taken to address the shortage of skilled factory workers and lorry drivers.
Nick Allen, chief executive at the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), which employs over 75,000 people, predicted disruption would continue in 2022 – accusing the government of being “in denial” about the workforce shortages.
He told The Independent: “The supermarket shelves are looking ragged. I think that’s going to become the norm – fewer choices on the shelves for the foreseeable future. At the moment it looks like disruption in the sector will continue into next year.”
GPs across the country have tweeted about the difficulties the shortage is causing in their practices, while patients have tweeted texts from their surgeries which have said their blood tests have been cancelled.
Britain will attempt to move away from European data protection regulations as it overhauls its privacy rules after Brexit, the government has announced.
The government hopes to prioritise “innovative and responsible uses of data”, a spokesperson said, so that it can “boost growth, especially for startups and small firms, speed up scientific discoveries and improve public services.”
Any future data regulation will also be aimed at convincing other nations that the UK’s data protection is adequate by their own standards, to allow for free and easy transfer of information across international borders. The government announced six target nations for such adequacy agreements, including the US, South Korea and Australia.
First-half sales fall £2bn, says industry body, as barriers are compounded by staff shortages
Exports of food and drink to the EU have suffered a “disastrous” decline in the first half of the year because of Brexit trade barriers, with sales of beef and cheese hit hardest.
Food and Drink Federation (FDF) producers lost £2bn in sales, a dent in revenue that could not be compensated for by the increased sales in the same period to non-EU countries including China and Australia.
The UK will not “sweep away” the controversial Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, despite renewed calls for its abolition by the Democratic Unionist party, the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, has said.
However, Frost renewed his demands for fundamental changes on its implementation, warning that the ongoing row could have a long-term chilling effect on wider EU-UK relations unless it was resolved.
“I worry that if we didn’t solve this issue, it is capable of generating the sorts of cold mistrust which will last between us and the European Union, and [the mistrust] will spread across the whole relationship [and] will hold back the potential for a new era of cooperation between us in a world which does need us to work together,” he said at the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford on Saturday.
The row over the protocol, known in some quarters as “sausage wars”, blew up within days of Brexit entering force this January, with barriers imposed for the first time for trade of food, plants and medicines from Great Britain.
But as key talks are set to resume, Lord Frost told the meeting of senior public figures that triggering Article 16 and suspending the protocol was not his preferred option, even though the “threshold” for such a move had had “been met”.
He called on the EU to engage seriously with proposals for radical changes to the protocol published in a UK government command paper in July, arguing “the proposals do not remove it [the Northern Ireland protocol]” and actually “retain controls in the Irish Sea for certain purposes”.
He said society would not forgive either side if they did not make the “small muscle movements” needed to make the protocol work.
“When one looks at the price [of failure or success], and sets it against other challenges that we face in Covid recovery, and Afghanistan, one wonders what future generations would say” if the current impasse is not shattered.
“We have no interest at all in having a fractious and difficult relationship with the EU,” he said.
Frost was speaking just hours after the Irish prime minister said at the same conference that unilateral moves by the UK would always be doomed to failure, arguing that history showed partnerships were the only route to success.
Talks over implementation of the protocol have continued between officials in London and Brussels over the summer but senior sources say engagement is “slow” and it is unlikely that the an agreement will be reached by 30 September, indicating talks will extend into the winter months.
The Northern Ireland secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, told the same conference that the UK was powering ahead with plans to “level up” Northern Ireland announcing a £730m investment into the new Peace Plus programme “to support economic stability, peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland”.
He spoke about the economic successes of the region including, the development of a massive cybersecurity sector employing 2,300 staff but said overall it still “punches well below its weight” with pockets of “unacceptable levels of deprivation” and much more to be done on integration of education with just 7% of children going to non-denominational schools.
Government source says UK wants to ‘create space for talks to happen without deadlines looming’
Plans for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland have been suspended indefinitely by the UK after negotiations with the EU reached a stalemate.
Grace periods designed to ease the transition into new trading arrangements and checks on the island of Ireland have twice been extended as part of diplomatic wrangling labelled “the sausage wars”.
On Monday evening David Frost, who is leading negotiations with the EU about updating the contentious Northern Ireland protocol, revealed a fresh extension, with no new deadline set for the completion of talks.
A government source said the UK wanted to “create space for talks to happen without deadlines looming” every three or six months. They added they had been transparent with the EU about their decision and the announcement was “coordinated, if not agreed upon”.
The source claimed that setting a new deadline just a few months away, with the current grace periods set to expire in October, “doesn’t help foster a creative environment for talks” and so the protocol “will carry on being operated as it is now for as long as there are talks ongoing”.
While Brussels withheld its formal agreement on the move, the EU will hold back from launching legal proceedings over the extension of the status quo, with a spokesman saying the European Commission is “not moving to the next stage of the infringement procedure launched in March 2021, and is not opening any new infringements for now”. Sources said a number of key EU leaders felt there was little to gain from confronting Boris Johnson’s government.
The issue was raised during recent talks between France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. “The feeling is that the developments in Afghanistan showed how important it is to have a good relationship with the UK and the intention is to take the spice out of things,” one diplomatic source said.
The grace periods were devised as a way to smooth the transition to new bureaucratic requirements on the export of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – including on foods like cold meats, leading to the “sausage wars” label.
In a written statement on Monday, Frost said that “to provide space for potential further discussions, and to give certainty and stability to businesses while any such discussions proceed, the government will continue to operate the protocol on the current basis”.
He added: “This includes the grace periods and easements currently in force … We will ensure that reasonable notice is provided in the event that these arrangements were to change, to enable businesses and citizens to prepare.”
Frost and the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, met over the weekend at a conference in Oxford where the issue was discussed. The Irish delegation at the conference are understood to have acknowledged that it would be impossible to agree new arrangements by 30 September and that an extension of the grace period was expected.
At the conference Frost urged the EU to take the UK’s proposals seriously and said it was seeking changes in three areas: the movement of goods into Northern Ireland, the standards for goods within the region, and the governance arrangements for that trade.
Also at the meeting of the British Irish Association at the weekend were Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, Northern Ireland first minister Paul Givan, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Michale Gove, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and representatives of the EU.
Officials on both sides are understood to have continued to engage in talks over August, but there has been no response from the EU to the UK’s command paper published in July on the issue.
Sources on the UK side said their first target was to determine and agree the “scope” of the negotiations, which would have to include an agreement to trigger article 13 of the protocol.
Boris Johnson wants an indefinite pause on his treaty obligations, but awkward facts of geography and economics will not change
In Brexit negotiations, no deadline is final. Reliably, it is the UK that needs an extension. Just as consistently, the reason is failure to understand the implications of something that had been agreed before the last deadline.
In accordance with that pattern, the government this week once again extended “grace periods” waiving checks for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. An early March deadline had been unilaterally abandoned by the UK; a second date of October was agreed with the European Commission. Now, David Frost, Brexit minister, says the waiver is to be indefinite “to provide space for potential further discussions” on changes to the Northern Ireland protocol.
That conversation has made little progress because, as ever in Brexit talks, the two sides have incompatible ideas about what it is they are discussing. The EU identifies the task in hand as finding ways to address UK concerns within the terms of the existing agreement. Lord Frost says the protocol needs total renegotiation. There is no appetite for that in European capitals. The message to London is that a treaty was signed; a deal is a deal. Technical solutions to Boris Johnson’s problems must be found within the text.
But the problem is not just technical. It is also theological. For example, the simplest solution in one of the most awkward areas – veterinary checks on agricultural produce – involves alignment of UK and Brussels standards. But that would be a dilution of regulatory sovereignty, so unacceptable to the high priests of Brexit.
Lord Frost has not given up on looser models of mutual recognition and open borders that have already been rejected. The UK counter-claims that the Commission is theologically rigid, obsessed with non-compliant goods penetrating the single market via Northern Ireland, when the threat is hypothetical. But the real obstacle is trust. Mr Johnson’s every move in the Brexit process has advertised his unreliability as a partner. Threats to renege on the existing deal are not a good prelude when demanding a better one.
This is part of the wider crisis in British diplomacy, expressing a basic error in the theory of Brexit. The UK, unleashed from Brussels, was meant to be so mighty with restored sovereignty that it could call the shots in international negotiations.
Things haven’t worked out that way. US president Joe Biden is in no hurry to do the trade deal that was heralded by Eurosceptics as a lucrative alternative to the single market. (The economics of that swap never added up and, with Donald Trump gone from the White House, the political calculus has unravelled too.)
It was reportedon Wednesday that, in order to secure a trade deal with Australia, Britain agreed to drop commitments to the Paris climate agreement – capitulation in an area where Mr Johnson will pretend to claim global leadership at the Cop26 summit later this year.
A picture is emerging of Britain as a lonely country, desperate for Brexit validation from non-European countries and unwilling to accept that repairing relations with Europe is the urgent priority. It might take a few more postponed deadlines before that reality is brought home. Mr Johnson may wish to pause his treaty obligations indefinitely, but the wider problems with Brexit come down to facts of geography and economics, which cannot be unilaterally suspended.
Jeffrey Donaldson says DUP is ‘totally opposed to Northern Ireland protocol as it presently exists’.
The Democratic Unionist party leadership has warned it is prepared to walk out of power-sharing in Stormont if the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol is not changed substantially.
Just days after the Brexit minister, David Frost, announced the UK would not “sweep away” the controversial arrangements, which involve checks on goods crossing into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the DUP’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, warned the DUP could not continue in Stormont if the “protocol issues remain”.
At the beginning of a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Sefcovic told the PA news agency that politicians needed to be calm on work on the “concrete problems”.
He said: “I already had conversations with Sir Jeffrey a couple of weeks ago. I will see him this afternoon as I will see also the other political leaders.
“We will have the opportunity to discuss this face to face and my message will be let’s work on the concrete problems.
“Let’s focus on the issues which are the most important for the people of Northern Ireland, let’s be constructive, let’s dial down the political rhetoric, let’s bring calm and focus on what is our task to accomplish.”
It appears that Sir Jeff is ramping up the rhetoric for petty political reasons rather than the common good.
The row over Brexit and Northern Ireland has escalated after the UK government issued a new warning to the EU that it will not shy away from unilaterally suspending the Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Boris Johnson last year.
Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, told the House of Lords on Monday night that the EU should take the UK’s proposals to renegotiate part of the protocol “seriously” if it wanted to avoid the protocol collapsing.
He said his July command paper had set out the tests the UK would apply to trigger article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to suspend the protocol if it is deemed as having a significant impact on everyday life.
“I urge the EU to take this seriously. They would be making a significant mistake if they thought that we were not ready to use article 16 safeguards, if that is our only choice to deal with the situation in front of us. If we are to avoid article 16, there must be a real negotiation between us and the EU.”
The Brexit minister was speaking just days after his Brussels counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, the joint head of the EU-UK partnership council, told the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) to “dial down the rhetoric” after it threatened to collapse Stormont over the protocol.
After a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, the European Commission vice-president said that a renegotiation of the protocol would merely lead to more instability for businesses and communities.
Frost’s remarks show how badly Šefčovič’s comments were received in Downing Street, and suggest the gulf in thinking between the EU and the UK is widening.
“I was concerned by some of the comments we have heard from commission representatives in recent days which seem to suggest they may be considering this way forward [the take it or leave it approach],” said Frost.
“If so, then with as much seriousness as I can, my Lords, I urge them to think again and consider instead working to reach genuine agreement with us so that we can put in place something that can last. Those negotiations need to begin seriously and they need to begin soon.”
Last week the DUP, which is fighting to hold on to its voter base locally, issued an ultimatum to the EU, saying that it would walk out of the Stormont assembly if there was not a serious rethink on the protocol within weeks.
Days before, the UK announced it was unilaterally extending a grace period for checks on chilled meats including sausages.
Šefčovič told reporters on Friday that the EU had responded calmly and had opted not to launch legal action in order to create space for dialogue.
The government must stop trying to re-enact old battles with Brussels and focus instead on building new relations
It is usually worth paying more attention to what ministers do than what they say, especially when the subject is Europe. At the start of this week, the Brexit minister, David Frost, told the House of Lords that Britain was unafraid to invoke article 16 – the emergency suspension clause – of the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) that Boris Johnson signed with Brussels last year. Days later, the government deferred the introduction of customs controls on goods being imported from the continent.
The message is consistent to the extent that Lord Frost’s comments and waiving of border regulation both demonstrate that the UK was unready for Brexit on the terms it negotiated. But there is a difference between menacing rhetoric that is meant to assert UK power and policy action that surrenders border control.
Mr Johnson’s government is giving European exporters a freedom of access to UK markets that British exporters do not enjoy when shipping wares the other way. That will put some British businesses at a competitive disadvantage and burden all with uncertainty. It punishes responsible traders who invested in preparation for customs checks, and now wonder why they bothered.
Postponing border checks is a pragmatic measure to avoid any further disruption to supply chains, especially in the run-up to Christmas, by which time it might be harder for the government to blame empty shelves on the pandemic.
Viewed from Brussels, that flexibility looks like a sign that Britain is grudgingly adapting to the facts of life outside the single market. The same is not true of Lord Frost’s article 16 threat. It came across as a pointed riposte to the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, who had visited Belfast a few days earlier and called for a cooling of rhetoric over the Northern Ireland protocol. For the Brexit minister to turn up the heat immediately again shows the limits to pragmatism in Mr Johnson’s cabinet.
This is a deliberate strategy derived from the view that sabre-rattling gets results with Brussels. Lord Frost is an alumnus of the hardline school of Brexit that thinks the EU will grant concessions if it sees the UK charging eagerly towards a diplomatic conflagration. According to this theory, showing readiness to rip up the TCA will hasten renegotiation over Northern Ireland. Aside from being misguided (wholesale treaty change is not on the EU’s agenda), that plan is appallingly reckless. If Britain starts burning its bridges with Brussels, it risks also setting fire to the Good Friday agreement. Political arson on that scale would bring Washington into the picture – and not on Mr Johnson’s side.
It is easy to see how the UK got hooked on brinkmanship. Brexit is old news in Brussels and would hardly be on EU leaders’ agendas at all unless Britain kept foisting it there. Having Lord Frost as a persistent nuisance is a way to grab attention and get things moving, but it does not change the balance of power between a lone country and a continent. Sabre-rattling over article 16, effectively threatening a full trade war, will not improve the terms of any compromise that is eventually reached. Lord Frost is wasting his time and squandering goodwill in the process.
He is also replicating Mr Johnson’s approach to Brexit before the deal was done. But the treaty is settled. The task now is to rebuild relations that were strained in the years of belligerence before withdrawal was confirmed. Lord Frost is re-enacting battles that the prime minister has fought once before, believing they ended in victory. Under that delusion he is faithfully serving his boss, but not his country.
Minister reveals plans to change laws inherited from EU, with rules on medical devices also in crosshairs
Rules on genetically modified farming, medical devices and vehicle standards will be top of a bonfire of laws inherited from the EU as the government seeks to change legislation automatically transferred to the UK after Brexit.
Thousands of laws and regulations are to be reviewed, modified or repealed under a new programme aimed at cementing the UK’s independence and “Brexit opportunities”, David Frost has announced.
The Brexit minister told peers the government had a “mammoth task” ahead to improve or remove laws inherited through 50 years of the “legislative sausage machine” in Brussels.
In the run-up to Brexit, the UK laid down 960 statutory instruments to roll EU laws over to the British statute books. The government is now looking at “developing a tailored mechanism for accelerating the repeal or amendment” of those, which may concern some MPs who fear the results of rushed lawmaking.
Government procurement rules, which have required contracts from national to local council to go to open tender, would also be modified, along with rules around data and artificial intelligence, Lord Frost told the House of Lords.
The Brexit minister also announced that members of the public could contribute to the bonfire of laws. A standards commission would be established and, “under visible and energetic leadership”, would be able to pick up “ideas from any British citizen on how to repeal or improve regulation”.
Frost said now was the time to deliver the Brexit promise to “unleash Britain’s potential” and “improve growth and prosperity for everyone”.
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Frost promised to “supercharge” the artificial intelligence sector with the imminent publication of a national strategy to lead the world in the “AI ecosystem”. His announcement was a formal response to the initial recommendations from the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, led by Iain Duncan Smith, one of the cheerleaders for lighter regulation.
“We now have the opportunity to do things differently and ensure that Brexit freedoms are used to help businesses and citizens get on and succeed. Today’s announcement is just the beginning. The government will go further and faster to create a competitive, high-standards regulatory environment which supports innovation and growth across the UK as we build back better from the pandemic,” said Frost.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow international trade secretary, questioned why the government was talking about Brexit opportunities while the country faced continuing shortages of staff and supplies and while exporters faced mounting losses on trade with the EU and businesses in Northern Ireland were “stuck in limbo”.