Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Brexit news.
Boris Johnson’s government has been forced to delay imposing checks on EU goods entering the UK until mid-2022 as it attempts to stop Brexit further exacerbating supply chain problems.
The move means British exports to the EU are subject to full checks, while imports into the UK by European competitors are mostly free of paperwork and border controls.
“It’s ironic,” said one EU diplomat. “They talked about taking back control, but they are letting products into Britain without any controls at all. That’s fine with us.”
The wholesale delay to the UK border regime was announced by Lord David Frost, Brexit minister, in a low-key written answer on a day dominated by government Covid-19 announcements.
“We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border,” Frost said, adding that the new timetable for border checks was “pragmatic”.
Frost said the delay to checks, which will particularly affect food and agricultural products, was in response to the supply chain problems, which he blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.
The FT has revamped Trade Secrets, its must-read daily briefing on the changing face of international trade and globalisation.
Sign up here to understand which countries, companies and technologies are shaping the new global economy.
Others have argued that Brexit has exacerbated problems, particularly the labour shortage in Britain.
The opposition Labour party said the delays on border controls were due to the government’s inability to tackle supply chain problems caused by Brexit. “This announcement shows what we have all known for months — that the government do not have a workable, sustainable answer to tackling delays and red tape at the border,” said Baroness Jenny Chapman, shadow Cabinet Office minister.
Meanwhile, some EU officials suspect that Britain’s border control regime is not yet fully ready for the new rules, although Frost insisted the government was “on track” to deliver the new systems.
Under Frost’s proposals, customs declarations and controls will be introduced on January 1, 2022 as planned, but safety and security declarations will not be needed until July 1 2022.
The requirement for pre-notification of agri-food imports to the UK will be introduced on January 1 2022 instead of on October 1 — a move that will help to avoid further Christmas disruption to food supplies.
Meanwhile, new requirements for export health certificates, which were due to be introduced on October 1 2021, will now be introduced on July 1 2022 — 18 months after Brexit took full effect.
Health certification for food products and physical checks on goods at border control posts, due to be introduced on January 1 2022, will now be introduced on July 1 2022.
Britain’s food and drink sector said there would be dismay at Frost’s last-minute announcement. Companies had invested heavily to prepare for the new import regime on October 1.
The Food and Drink Federation said “the rug has been pulled” on those companies that followed government advice to prepare for the new regime, while rewarding those who ignored it.
“The repeated failure to implement full UK border controls on EU imports since January 1 2021 undermines trust and confidence among businesses,” said Ian Wright, FDF’s chief executive.
“Worse, it actually helps the UK’s competitors. The asymmetric nature of border controls facing exports and imports distorts the market and places many UK producers at a competitive disadvantage with EU producers.”
Wright added that the government needed to put in place financial support to help companies prepare for the new deadlines, but said it was at least welcome that ministers accepted that supply chains were “under extreme pressure”.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said the temporary extension, while welcome, pointed to the difficulties created by Brexit that required imposing “rest of world” checks on high-intensity EU-UK trade.
“By kicking the can down the road again, the government has averted potential disaster for Christmas food supplies — however, you have to ask why it has come to this yet again?”
William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the delay would give the government more time to get EU traders ready for checks on exports to the UK. “Ministers need to show them how they plan to step up rates of EU trader readiness for the new controls,” he said.
Follow the big issues arising from the UK’s separation from the EU. Get Brexit Briefing in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up here.