Brexit's brood of chlorinated chickens come home to roost

Britain leaving the single market and the customs union leaves no room for soft Brexit, writes Colm McCarthy

Food for thought: Molly Schuyler of Nebraska ate a record 363 chicken wings at the Wing Bowl 22. But US chicken-rearing practices do not wash in Europe. Photo: AP
Food for thought: Molly Schuyler of Nebraska ate a record 363 chicken wings at the Wing Bowl 22. But US chicken-rearing practices do not wash in Europe. Photo: AP
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

It was never going to be easy to secure a frictionless border in Ireland once the UK exited the European Union. The land borders of a highly integrated market for goods, labour and capital cannot be frictionless unless it shares reciprocal rules of access, tantamount to membership, with its neighbours.

Only the softest form of Brexit could have achieved this and Britain's commitment to departure from the single market and the customs union, in favour of a negotiated free-trade agreement as a third country, means that the 'frictionless' option has been set aside. This policy choice of Theresa May's government will result in various unavoidable frictions on the Irish border.

Prior to the referendum, several prominent Leave campaigners in the Tory party, even Nigel Farage of UKIP, assured voters that Britain would stay in the single market after Brexit. The customs union was barely mentioned. Departing both arrangements means tariff and non-tariff barriers as well as obstacles to free movement.

It was open to Theresa May's government to stay in the single market, and stay allied to the customs union, while leaving the EU, thus complying with the referendum verdict. The choice to do neither was a capitulation to the Brexiteer wing of the Tory party and is not consistent with the retention of an open border in Ireland.

Documents released during the week in London, dealing with the customs union and the Irish border, have done nothing to square the circle. They have obfuscated rather than clarified the choices on offer and reflect unresolved divisions within the Conservative Party which have been latent since the referendum in June last year. The decision to activate Article 50 at the end of March, the irrevocable trigger for exit, was taken before these divisions had been resolved, a decision which set the clock ticking to Britain's disadvantage.

Last Tuesday's customs union paper followed a curious article in The Sunday Telegraph penned jointly by the chancellor Philip Hammond, who campaigned for Remain and is viewed as committed to damage limitation, and trade secretary Liam Fox, an out-and-out Brexiteer. The article reiterated the hard Brexit couplet of exit from both single market and customs union, a surprise coming from Hammond. But the paper offered two customs union scenarios, one an unconvincing spiel largely about electronic process management, the alternative a Turkey-style arrangement with Britain accepting many of the current customs union constraints.

Turkey is not a full member of the customs union (confined to EU members) but has a close relationship, including zero tariffs on non-food EU trade and similar tariffs on its trade outside Europe. But the Turkey arrangement has not gone smoothly and there are customs hold-ups at the borders with the EU.

A Turkey-style deal is not a template for a hassle-free Irish border. In any event it was offered only as an option and the EU will be reluctant to begin negotiations for some months yet, until the withdrawal parameters have been progressed.

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It is an article of faith with Brexiteers that Britain can, unshackled from Brussels, negotiate lucrative trade deals outside Europe, a mission on which Liam Fox has been running up the air-miles. His most recent expedition was to Washington where he ran smack bang into a chlorinated chicken.

The US has different food standards, including animal welfare standards, from the European Union and the highly competitive US chicken industry keeps costs down through washing the eviscerated carcases in chlorine. This permits chicken-rearing on the cheap apparently, and any evil bugs that might accumulate are fully washed out.

Chlorine is fine from a food safety angle - there is chlorine in the public water supply in Ireland, after all. So US food exporters are credible when they maintain that America's chickens are perfectly edible. But their chicken-rearing practices do not impress European animal welfare groups, who tend to see things from the chicken's perspective.

In any event, chlorinated chicken is banned in Europe and the hapless Dr Fox had to endure mocking coverage from tabloid journalists about the avalanche of dodgy American grub about to engulf Britain's High Street.

The issue is serious in the context of possible trade deals with the USA, Brazil and several other food exporters. These countries will demand access for agricultural exports to Britain in any post-Brexit trade deal and their food prices are lower than those prevailing in Europe.

Since cheaper food is one of the few plausible economic upsides the Brexiteers can offer, the trip to Washington turned into a PR disaster for the good doctor, who declined to sample the offending poultry himself.

The great British public are equally unenthusiastic about chlorinated chicken, genetically-modified burgers, or other strange foreign delicacies. This may all be populist guff in scientific terms, since Americans do not suffer higher rates of food-related illnesses than Europeans, but the Brexiteers are not well placed to attack anybody, least of all their tabloid fan-club, for peddling populist guff.

The Wednesday paper on Irish border issues is a puzzling document and one is entitled to wonder whether all of the ministers and departments in London are fully signed up. It promised no customs posts and no passport checks.

But Britain can only promise the absence of customs posts on the northern side of the border. If agricultural products that do not meet European standards are free to enter the UK, and hence Northern Ireland, the EU will have to inspect on the southern side. The Republic and Brussels bureaucrats can then be blamed for the resultant hard border.

Has the UK abandoned its willingness to depart from European food safety standards, and thus its ambitions for a return to the cheap food policy?

The common travel area is to be policed indirectly with checks on EU immigrants through employers and controls on access to the British social service system. But continental Europeans lacking entitlement to enter Britain will be perfectly free to travel to Dublin airport, less than an hour from UK territory on the frequent bus services.

In this case the immigration barriers will come either on the northern side of the border, with Calais relocated to the Wee County, or at the airport, ending free movement from continental Europe into the Republic.

The split in the Tory party has been accompanied by alienation from its traditional supporters in the British business community, whose representative bodies are increasingly alarmed at the indecision in Whitehall.

Some of the proposals would see more red tape rather than the bonfire of regulation promised by the Brexiteers. The customs union document envisages a system of form-filling and electronic clearance which may not even prove technically feasible and will impose a sizeable cost burden - even if it can be made to work.

Exit from the single market implies a deluge of new British product standards, complete with a New Model Army of home-grown bureaucrats to administer this exercise in 'taking back control'.

One of the schemes to manage the alternative customs union is an Orwellian system of electronic traceability for imported products through to the point of consumption.

It's nice to know that Big Brother will be watching as the chlorinated chickens come home to roost.

Sunday Independent

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