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The Northern Ireland Protocol (the Protocol) is an integral part of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement which regulated how the UK’s exit from the EU would work. The Protocol sets out Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit relationship with both the EU and Great Britain (the rest of the UK). The Protocol maintains an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but as part of this arrangement requires checks on the entry of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

These checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are causing practical and political difficulties. Controls on animals and plants, known as Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks, are some of the most intensive and strict on goods.

These SPS checks could be reduced and/or removed if the UK and EU signed a veterinary agreement.

The EU has several such agreements in place, including one with Switzerland, and another with New Zealand (NZ), both of which have been suggested as models for a solution to meet the needs of Northern Ireland. The EU-Swiss agreement removes all documentary and identity checks, and most physical checks, as well as most veterinary certificates. However, it requires Switzerland to largely align to the EU’s food and plant safety and animal health rules.

The EU-NZ agreement is an “equivalence agreement”, in which both sides certify their rules and regulations are equivalent to each other, allowing them to reduce border processes for agri-food. However, veterinary certificates would still be required, and the EU prohibition on the import of chilled meats would also still apply. It could, however, simplify border processes, particularly the frequency of physical inspections. The EU have also suggested in their October 2021 proposals for updating the Protocol, that it could remove the prohibition on chilled meats, subject to them carrying individual certificates.

The European Commission have published a document (opens PDF) showing what import requirements, authorisations and prohibitions for animal products exist under the EU-Swiss agreement, EU-NZ agreement, and for third countries without any such arrangements.

Northern Ireland views on EU-UK veterinary agreement

An EU-UK veterinary agreement has been advocated by NI Alliance MP Stephen Farry, and by the party’s leader Naomi Long. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has urged the UK Government to sign a Swiss-style agreement with the EU. Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin’s Brexit spokesperson and Executive Minister, has also suggested the UK sign up to a Swiss-style arrangement.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has advocated removing the Protocol entirely but has suggested other solutions. In September 2021, the UUP released a document (opens PDF) outlining alternatives to the Protocol, which included a “Bespoke SPS Treaty between the UK and EU”. In February, former DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster acknowledged that such a deal would help with SPS checks, but said it would not help with customs checks and other barriers to trade. The current leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has set out “seven tests” for any new solution to the Protocol, one of which is “no checks on goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”, and has suggested he would ask DUP Executive Ministers to “frustrate any such additional checks, now or in the future”.

Shanker Singham, trade policy advisor and Brexit advocate, has suggested a New Zealand-style veterinary agreement (opens PDF). He acknowledged that it would not take requirements for checks away, but said “what that would do, and it is really helpful, is lower the intensity of physical checks. For New Zealand-EU, for example, the physical check is down to 2%. The documentary check is down to 10% or so”.

Anton Spisak, policy lead for trade and productivity at the Tony Blair Institute, acknowledges the advantages of a veterinary agreement but says it “cannot deal with the full scope of issues” and “nor can a temporary arrangement for the whole of the UK to align with EU sanitary laws, suggested by the European Commission, serve as a durable solution”. Instead, he advocates that the EU and UK agree to a principle of “mutual recognition” of each other’s rules for a certain class of sensitive goods sold and consumed in Northern Ireland only, such as chilled meat, agricultural products and medicines.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union have also said they support the principle of UK-EU alignment on agri-food standards, as has Glyn Roberts, the Chief Executive of Retail NI. The CBI have argued for a “bespoke” EU-UK veterinary agreement.

UK Government views

Asked in the House of Lords, whether the Government would consider an EU-Swiss style veterinary agreement, Lord Frost responded in March 2021:

On the question of a SPS or veterinary agreement, we proposed in the TCA negotiations last year that there could be an equivalence arrangement between us and the EU. Unfortunately, the EU was not open to that. We continue to be open to such an equivalence arrangement, if the EU is interested in it.

One of the concerns critics of an EU-UK veterinary agreement have raised is that it could make trade deals with other countries such as the US more difficult, as it would create barriers to their agri-food products coming into the UK.

It was reported in June 2021 that President Biden told the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that a temporary UK-EU agreement on food standards would pose no barrier to a separate UK-US trade deal. Asked about these reports when giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 16 June, Lord Frost responded:

We have aspirations to agree FTAs with a large number of countries and trading blocs, and obviously the US will be a big and important one, but that does not change the nature of the problem. The fact is that you need control of your own rules to conclude any trade agreements with anybody.

Lord Frost was asked by the Committee if it was true that the EU had offered the UK a temporary SPS agreement that wouldn’t require the UK to permanently align to its standards. He acknowledged that the EU had offered a temporary agreement, which they said could be “negotiated in a matter of weeks”. He was, however, sceptical that it could be agreed that quickly and questioned the longer-term sustainability of such an approach:

I’ve got to say, on the basis of how long these things take, even with goodwill, given what is at stake here. The timetable is very short. As I said, we have already agreed a deal with Australia, and we have aspirations with New Zealand, the CPTPP and so on, so even if we were willing to contemplate a temporary agreement—we are not—it might be very temporary. Indeed, I could imagine that developments make it irrelevant even before we finish the negotiation.

The UK Government released a series of proposals for modifying the Protocol in a Command Paper in July 2021. The paper did not mention a veterinary agreement. The Government instead proposed that SPS checks be vastly reduced for agri-food goods are only intended to be consumed in Northern Ireland.

Former Labour Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh, has backed the idea of the UK signing a veterinary agreement with the EU.

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