New UK border checks are ‘disaster waiting to happen’, warns flower industry

New UK border checks are ‘disaster waiting to happen’, warns flower industry

The Dutch flower-growing industry has called for the scheduled introduction of new post-Brexit border checks to be delayed until 2025, citing “significant concerns” about industry readiness for the changes.The UK government is due to start introducing new paperwork requirements for EU business sending animal and plant products to the UK from the end of January, with physical inspections starting in April. The call for a delay from the Dutch association of wholesalers in floricultural products (VGB) was issued in a letter to the UK government, seen by the Financial Times. It also warned that key computer systems were not fully ready.“The proposed timelines raise significant concerns within our industry,” wrote VGB director Matthijs Mesken. He added the additional requirements were coming into effect ahead of a critical point in the year with high trading volumes driven by Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mothering Sunday.The UK government has been adamant there will be no further delays to the introduction of the new border, which has been postponed five times since the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force on January 1 2021.It will be introduced in three phases: starting with the introduction of Export Health Certificates on January 31; followed by physical inspections on medium- and high-risk plant and animal products on April 30; and then, from October 31, safety and security declarations on all goods.Hendrik Jan Kloosterboer, the secretary of Anthos, another Dutch trade association representing the nursery plants and flower bulb industry, said there was “great concern” about shifting physical inspections of delicate plants to port border posts and the delays this would cause.“We fear that it will have a big impact on logistics and cause damage to products like big mature trees, with root balls, where loading can take five to six hours by skilled people. So it is simply not possible to offload these products at the border,” he said. Trade and border experts echoed his concerns, saying there were serious doubts that EU-based small businesses were aware of the requirement to obtain complex certificates for food and animal products from the end of January.James Barnes, the chair of the Horticultural Trades Association, which represents the UK plants and nursery industry, pointed out that the process of importing a petunia from the Netherlands had already increased from 19 to 59 steps since Brexit, and the move to now introduce checks at the border would add yet further costs and delays.“We think that the new border is a disaster waiting to happen,” he said, “The fundamental issue is that the infrastructure isn’t in place to cope with the volume of trade that’s coming through.”The UK government has admitted that the new risk-based checks will cost businesses £330mn in additional red tape charges, but argued they are essential for maintaining UK biosecurity as well as creating a level playing field for British exporters who faced similar checks when exporting to the EU.But business and trade groups have warned that the new checks on EU exporters risk reducing the number of smaller EU businesses prepared to trade with the UK — mirroring what happened in 2021 when many UK SMEs gave up exporting to the bloc.Marco Forgione, director-general of the Institute of Export and International Trade, which represents importers across the UK, said there was strong anecdotal evidence that EU companies were not ready for the changes.“We have a growing anxiety that the state of preparedness in the EU is very low,” he said. “Even recognition that things are going to change is very low, and it decreases as you go down the size of business.”Flowers grown in the Netherlands on sale in a London market © Kristina Blokhin/AlamyThe IEIT also noted that while UK businesses had been prepared to absorb additional red tape costs in order to keep trading with the EU after January 2020, the smaller size of the UK market might make EU business less willing to follow suit, driving up prices for the UK.William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, warned that EU companies’ readiness remained a “significant unknown” for traders in agri-food products. “Additional costs and paperwork, as well as uncertainty over the treatment of consignments made up of many different animal and plant products, will create strong headwinds for EU-GB agri-food trade in 2024,” he said.Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium industry group, said the government had said it was working to raise awareness in major EU exporting countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.“You would expect big players to be ready, but for a smaller player — an Italian specialist in cured meats, say — it may be harder. Even in the UK government there is concern over whether all EU regional governments are up to speed. It’s a bit of an unknown,” he added.The letter from the Dutch flower exporters also warned that the potential delays from the border post inspections risked triggering renewed truck driver shortages on their delivery routes.“Even relatively short delays for inspections can result in over 8.5 hours of delays when truck drivers need to make an extra resting stop. The shortage of truck drivers will worsen with inefficient operations,” it warned.They also complained that a scheme to streamline border processes for major exporters had not been opened for applications, while a new computer system for registering plant and animal products — IPAFFS — was not fully functional.Out of a total of 40,000 plants exported from the Netherlands to the UK, several thousand could still not be declared correctly because of a lack of individual identifier codes, they warned, and a race was on to generate the codes in time for the border launch. Until then, Mesken, the director of the VGB, wrote that operators were entering the dummy code “xxx” as a workaround that, he argued, “does not align with the UK’s objective . . . for improved data collection and a more robust risk-based approach”. The UK is heavily reliant on beef imports from Ireland © Aidan Crawley/BloombergThe meat industry is also bracing for the changes, with the industry heavily reliant on Ireland for beef and the wider EU for pork meat, according to Peter Hardwick, trade policy adviser for the British Meat Processors Association, an industry body.Hardwick said industry had been led to expect that UK inspectors would be flexible in the first stage of the border implementation, when Export Health Certificates are required, in order to avoid causing shortages and delays, but that there would be an impact on prices.“Our understanding is that even if a good turns up without an EHC it is not going to be turned back, at least until the end of April, but if you’re checking for EHCs you still have to stop vehicles. Inevitably, things will be slower from January 31,” he said.The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said technology would reduce the costs of the new border and officials would seek to minimise disruptions when enforcing the so-called Border Target Operating Model (BTOM).“We are working closely with stakeholders across all affected sectors within the UK, across the EU and with trading partners around the world to support readiness for the BTOM,” the department said.

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