LONDON - A no-deal Brexit would cause havoc to the island of Ireland and agri-businesses on both sides of the border are fearful of the impact.
So, too, is the Irish government, and is becoming more so after Monday’s chaotic visit by Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Luxembourg, during which he skipped a press appearance to avoid anti-Brexit protesters and was mocked for doing so by European Union leaders.
British officials accused their EU counterparts of seeking to ambush Johnson by refusing to move the press appearance away from the protesters.
After a meeting with the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the EU’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Johnson told Britain’s ITN broadcaster that there was movement in the talks in which London is trying to find a way out of the Brexit morass.
A key sticking point is the the so-called Irish backstop, which would see Britain remaining in the EU customs union for an indefinite period while a trade deal is negotiated. That would avoid a so-called “hard border” being reimposed across the island of Ireland for customs checks and tariff-collection and for the examination of goods exported from British-ruled Northern Ireland to ensure they comply with EU standards.
The backstop was included in the exit agreement Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, concluded with Brussels, but the House of Commons withheld three times its approval of the deal with hardline Brexiters disapproving of Britain’s inclusion in the customs union and pro-EU lawmakers fearful the deal would not keep Britain as tied to the bloc as they’d like to see.
“Yes there is a good chance of a deal,” Johnson said. “Yes I can see the shape of it. Everybody can see roughly what could be done,” he said.
But that was not the impression of EU officials and of Johnson’s host, the prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel. He ridiculed the British leader for his claims there had been good progress in the Brexit talks, saying he has offered no detailed alternative to the backstop, and accused Johnson of trying to lay the groundwork for the EU to be blamed, if Britain crashes out on October 31, the official deadline for its departure, without an agreement.
Implying that Johnson has little interest in reaching a deal with Brussels, he criticized the British leader saying: “People need to know what is going to happen them in six weeks’ time. They need certainty and they need stability.” The Luxembourg prime minister was speaking meters from a nosily group of anti-Brexit protesters, mostly British expats living in Luxembourg, furious with all the long-running uncertainty. They say they fear for their livelihoods, if there is a no-deal Brexit.
They are not alone. Alarm is rising in the Irish Republic. The British neighbor that would be most affected by Britain’s departure from the EU. Trade to and from Britain is vital for the Irish economy, which has only recently emerged from the wreckage caused by the 2008 global financial crash.
Last year, Irish Republic businesses exported $17.6 billion worth of goods to Britain, including half of all the beef and cheese Irish farmers and food producers sell overseas. Last week, the country’s agriculture minister, Michael Creed, conceded the Republic’s crucial agri-business sector is in jeopardy and is discussing with EU partners how Ireland can be compensated for losses.
On Monday, as the Johnson visit to Luxembourg played out, Ireland’s Central Bank issued a grim report warning that up to a third of Irish farms could be forced out of business after a no-deal Brexit. According to the study, beef and sheep farmers would struggle to survive as they would see tariffs of up to 50% added to the price of goods they export to Britain.
Joe Healy, president of the Irish Farmers Association, says a no-deal Brexit would amount to an Armageddon for the Irish beef sector. “It's our closest market, we know what the UK requires and we supply that but it won't be able to compete on shelves against cheaper foreign imports” in the event of high tariffs, he added.
Farmers north of the border in Northern Ireland are as anxious as their counterparts south of it. “No deal will be a total disaster,” according to Ivor Ferguson, president of the Ulster Farmers Union.
Thirty percent of all Northern Irish-produced milk is exported to the Irish Republic for producers there to make cheese and milk. Nearly half-a-million sheep are sent south for slaughter. Some food businesses, most of which are on tight profit margins, have warned they could go out of business within three days of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. A no-deal Brexit would also cause havoc with supply chains that run across the border. Sometimes a product will cross the border several times during processing.
Northern Irish farmers that sell to the Irish Republic and other EU countries say the customs paperwork they would be required to provide after a no-deal Brexit would delay deliveries, making it prohibitive to export perishable goods.
Seamus Leheny of Northern Ireland’s Freight Transport Association has warned that the seafood businesses in just three of Northern Ireland’s six counties would have to submit a total of 60,000 applications for food standard certificates a year. Leheny said there are not enough inspectors to handle the workload, meaning fresh food would be left to rot as forms waited for officials to sign.
There are also a massive shortage of veterinarians in Northern Ireland available to inspect livestock earmarked for export to the Republic or other EU countries.
With Brexit looming closer, public opinion in Northern Ireland is showing some shifts. In a poll last week, 51% of respondents said they thought Brexit makes Irish unification more likely, and 46% said they would vote to join the Irish Republic. Forty-five percent would prefer to remain under British rule. The prospect of unification was most popular with 18 to 24-year-olds.
And there is growing worry that a hard border, if re-imposed, will invite attacks by members of dissident IRA groups, whose leaders opposed the U.S.-brokered 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, which ended three decades of strife in Northern Ireland. The dissident republican groups have stepped up attacks in recent months, targeting the police.
So far this year there have been eight bomb attacks on police in Belfast, Craigavon and Fermanagh, compared to just one in 2018.
And the assailants have shown they have access to high-caliber weaponry and materiel. The increase in tempo as well as dissident threats to bomb any checkpoints that re-emerge on the border are adding to alarm. Britain’s MI5 has 700 officers now in the British-ruled province, and according to government officials, some mainland British police units have undergone training for emergency redeployment to Northern Ireland, just in case.