The Seanad report on Brexit has proposed that a free trade agreement, for “vulnerable sectors” like agriculture, should be considered in negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Published today, July 4, the report recognised that farming was among a number of sectors that were likely to be the worst affected by the imposition of customs duties.

It said: “The agri-food sector is a key concern. This is particularly in light of the possibility that the UK will conclude trade agreements with third countries that could undercut Irish products in terms of price and standards.

It has been suggested that if a customs regime cannot be avoided, it would be extremely difficult to protect Irish exports of agricultural products. As a solution, a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK for vulnerable sectors, including agricultural products, should be a primary consideration.

Countries where the UK is expected to pursue cheap food imports include Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, although Brazil has recently come under fire in a beef scandal that resulted in a ban being imposed by the US.

Border issue

On trade solutions for Northern Ireland, the report recommended a German model stemming from a trade arrangement between East and West Germany before its reunification in 1990 and referenced in the Treaty of Rome.

The report said: “Under the ‘German model’ trade on the island of Ireland would be considered as all-island trade and within the one economy. This would correspond to the all-island economy currently in place across a number of sectors but how this would comply with subsequent treaties to the Treaty of Rome will need to be further explored.”

The UK is a core market for fresh and processed agricultural products, accounting for 40% of Irish agri-food exports. This includes: 50% of Irish beef; 33% of dairy products; 50% of pigmeat products; and 90% of mushrooms.

The challenges for the agri-food and farming sector were identified as:

  • The potential loss of access to the UK market for Irish products without facing very high tariff rates;
  • Ongoing currency volatility;
  • Massive disruption to the all-island supply chains;
  • Potential customs difficulties using the UK as a land-bridge to access other EU markets;
  • Potential future differences in standards or product rules (like packaging and labelling for example);
  • Knock-on impacts on farms and farming incomes;
  • And a potential impact on CAP funding.