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07 Sep 2023


Relationship with the EU

The government has confirmed a further delay to post-Brexit border controls on animal and plant products coming from the EU.

The UK’s final border plan has been published but the first phase of implementation will not begin until January 2024, rather than this October as was set out in the draft of the plan.

This explainer sets out why controls are needed at the GB-EU border, what controls the UK plans on introducing, and why they continue to be delayed.

What changes did Brexit necessitate at the GB-EU border?

On 31 December 2020, UK officially left the single market and customs union. As a result, the UK and the EU are now in separate customs and regulatory regimes.

On 1 January 2021, the EU applied its usual third-country customs and regulatory regime to goods imported from Great Britain (GB) to the EU, to ensure the correct taxes (e.g., tariffs, VAT and excise duty) are paid, safety and security obligations are fulfilled, and that they meet relevant standards in areas such as food safety as well as disease control. This means that businesses in Great Britain exporting their goods to the EU currently face border checks. These checks are particularly intrusive in the case of food exports.

But although the UK introduced some new customs formalities, it has repeatedly delayed applying its own third-country customs and regulatory regime to goods entering from the EU. That means GB businesses have been subject to certain paperwork and costs, which EU businesses exporting to the UK largely avoid.

Does the UK have to implement full border controls on EU imports?

There is pressure on the UK government to implement full import controls on EU imports for a variety of reasons.

First, the UK’s failure to control EU imports in the same way as it does on other trading partners could be deemed as giving the EU unjustified preferential treatment and, therefore, violate WTO rules.

“Stricter controls on UK exports to the EU compared to EU imports into the UK are putting British domestic industries and suppliers at a disadvantage.”

Second, there is alarm among some industries, such as the veterinary sector and domestic food producers, that the absence of full controls is making the UK vulnerable to food fraud and animal disease.

Third, stricter controls on UK exports to the EU compared to EU imports into the UK are putting British domestic industries and suppliers at a disadvantage. This is because it creates an ‘uneven playing field’ for British businesses, such as farmers, as they are subject to expensive and time-consuming checks on their exports to the EU, while competing businesses in the EU can export to the UK without similar barriers.

What changes have been implemented so far?

The UK had initially planned to introduce full controls on imports coming into GB from the EU in three stages from January 2021 – when the UK first left the single market and the customs union – to July 2021, when the border would be fully operational. This was set out in its Border Operating Model from 2020.

However, for a variety of reasons (covered below), there have been repeated delays to their implementation.

Since January 2022, imports from the EU have had to be accompanied with relevant customs declarations and upfront payment of necessary tariffs. However, the following controls have still not been introduced:

  • Health certification and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certification for agri-food products.
  • Physical SPS-checks on imports at designated Border Control Posts.
  • Safety and security declarations which provide a summary of the goods contained in a consignment to reduce the risk of terrorism and trade in illicit goods.

This means the UK still does not carry out full import controls on goods entering Great Britain from the EU.

In August 2023, the government announced the final draft of its Border Target Operating Model (BTOM). This sets outs how the UK will introduce full controls on imports coming into GB from the EU.

The model will be implemented in three phases:

  • 31 January 2024- Health certificates and phytosanitary certificates will be required for imports of ‘medium risk’ animal products, plants, and plant products (such as raw/chilled/frozen meat and dairy products) as well as ‘high risk’ food (predominantly live animals) and feed of non-animal origin from the EU.
  • 30 April 2024- Documentary checks (ensuring goods have correct paperwork e.g., health and phytosanitary certificates), physical checks (ensuring goods meet sanitary and phytosanitary rules), and identity checks (verifying that the goods in the consignment are those that are on the documentation) will be made on ‘medium risk’ animal products, plants, and plant products as well as ‘high risk’ food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU.
  • 31 October 2024- Safety and Security declarations will have to be made for EU imports.

The government has previously claimed that the BTOM would reduce costs to businesses by £400m per annum compared to the previous iteration on account of reduced complexity and a smaller volume of paperwork.

For example, it includes plans for some controls to be carried out away from borders, the launch of a pilot trusted trader scheme to allow regular importers to avoid full custom checks (with plans for this to be extended to some SPS checks after trials next year), and for minimal routine border controls to be applied to ‘low risk’ consignments such as fruits and vegetables, processed foods, and shelf-stable products.

This is backed by a commitment for £1 billion in the current spending review period to ‘transform’ the UK border, by investing in technological advancement such as around data collection, many of which are also part of the UK’s wider 2025 Border Strategy.

A key part of this are the plans for the UK’s new Single Trade Window, which aims to streamline the process of collecting data on goods moving between borders. The government says that the window will mean that traders will only once have to submit necessary information relating to imports and exports to a single digital hub. Currently, many traders have to upload forms to multiple different systems, which are managed by different border agencies.

However, some industry leaders have expressed doubt about the extent to which some of these new measures will prevent disruption.

For example, some have been critical of the proposed timeline for the trusted trader scheme, suggesting that it will only be effective in alleviating disruption after at least a year.

Others have pointed to the fact that ‘low risk’ consignments already have relatively light touch requirements, thus limiting the extent of disruption really being avoided by the new border model.

How will the new controls impact imports from the EU?

Two potential outcomes of the new border controls have been predicted:

First, foods industry bodies have predicted that the controls, as currently set out, will lead to an increase in food prices. This is due to the costs to businesses of meeting certification and custom declaration requirements as well as the increase in the flat-rate inspection fee (from £20 to £43) to be charged on each consignment of food coming from the EU. It is expected that businesses and traders will then pass on these costs to consumers, causing food prices to rise.

The Cabinet Office has stated that the plans will have a ‘minor’ impact on headline inflation, estimating that it would increase the rate by less than 0.2% over three years.

Second, some expect that many EU businesses will stop or reduce their exports to the UK due to the increased time and cost required to provide all of the newly required paperwork. When the EU implemented their full border controls on goods arriving from Great Britain, many UK businesses reacted the same way by stopping or reducing exports to the EU – and the UK is a less significant market for EU suppliers than the EU is for UK ones.

Why has implementation been delayed?

Before the latest delay, the implementation of full border checks of imports from the EU had already been officially delayed four times (in March 2021, September 2021, December 2021 and April 2022).

A variety of different reasons have been given including:

After these delays, the first stage of the implementation of full border controls was supposed to start in October 2023. Indeed, the government had stressed its ‘firm intention’ to meet this deadline in light of increased pressure from parliament and some industries to avoid further delays.

“Before the latest delay, the implementation of full border checks of imports from the EU had already been officially delayed four times”

However, the government has now announced a fifth delay to these post-Brexit border controls.

The reported explanations for the latest delays are to give businesses more time to adapt to the new rules, and concern that introducing the controls now would add to the already high inflationary pressure.

Some predicted that a delay to the introduction of the controls planned for October 2023 was inevitable because of the lack of awareness among EU businesses about the controls, possibly due to a false sense of security on account of the UK’s slow introduction of post-Brexit border controls, and the absence of a government support service for importers to give firms guidance on new regulations.

As a result, the current timeline would have place EU businesses under severe time pressure to prepare for new requirements in October, given that the final draft of the Border Operating Model has only just been published.

The British Freight Association (BIFA) has reported the frustration of its members with the repeated delays, having made investments in staff and resources to meet deadlines established by the original Border Operating Model.

Delays have been particularly costly for port operators which have been unable to recoup their construction and operating costs, which is usually done by levying charge on importers.

The new Border Target Operating model, promising more limited checks, has frustrated port operators even further as, according to Richard Ballantyne, the CEO of the British Ports Association, much of the infrastructure constructed by port operators will no longer be needed, meaning much of the time and money invested by port operators will likely go to waste.

Belfast harbour

Does this affect the operation of the GB-NI border?

The movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are covered by the NI Protocol/Windsor Framework, so are not affected by the Border Target Operating Model.

For goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, the UK unilaterally committed to unfettered access for NI goods moving into the GB market in the Internal Market Act. However, this applies only to ‘qualifying Northern Ireland goods’ and, for now, the system for those goods remains unchanged.

The definition of ‘qualifying Northern Ireland goods’ also largely remains the same. But new arrangements will apply for traders moving food and feed products, which will need to be owned or processed in Northern Ireland by a NI registered food or feed business to be considered a qualifying good.

The new proposals make clear that unfettered access applies both to goods coming into GB directly from Northern Ireland and for NI goods coming to GB via Ireland. But the document also sets out how controls will be phased in on non-qualifying goods in two stages next year. It also notes the government will need to take measures to ensure that the scheme is not abused.

By Peter Jurkovic, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.


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