Without a thorough understanding of what the UK exports and imports, UK policy makers are bound to make mistakes. The most obvious mistake has been the UK’s acceptance of the establishment of a customs border between two parts of the United Kingdom under the pretence that there was a need to protect the EU’s single market from unapproved British products being smuggled into Ireland and then reexported to the continent. This is just so far from the reality of UK-Irish trade it is laughable. But still our politicians bought into this fallacy. I can only assume they had never looked closely at UK-Irish trade.
My favourite example is the hoo-ha about British sausages. It would appear that the public servants providing politicians with research are either all vegetarians or have never travelled around Europe or have never even looked at the trade figures.
There is a mistaken belief that trade happens most intensively between geographically close markets, but needs, wants and taste are much stronger factors determining trade flows. The five million people of Ireland import more UK consumer food products than most of more populous EU markets. That is because the UK and Ireland share Anglo-Saxon tastes. They like our food and we like theirs. But that doesn’t hold true for the rest of the EU.
The Great British Banger
For example, the Great British Banger, as Boris would call it, doesn’t sell well in most of continental Europe. Europeans prefer sausages made from finely ground meats and offal such as bratwurst in Germany, boudin in France, krekowska in Poland, and various types of smoked kolbasz in Hungary. Italian sausages resemble their British cousins, but the meat is chunkier and the seasoning spicier, while Spanish androla and chorizo use even chunkier meat and much more spice. These countries are unlikely to buy British bangers smuggled across the NI/RoI border. I know this because they didn’t buy many when we were members of the single market either. Actually, not many countries do.
Pre 2018 the UK exported less than £20 million pounds worth of sausages with about half going to Ireland and the rest spread out across the globe. In 2018 and 2019 total exports jumped to just under £30 million due to Qatar buying a similar value of sausages to Ireland. The difference being that I suspect Qatar was buying lamb or beef sausages as they were paying a much higher unit value than Ireland. But still, together these two countries bought two thirds of UK sausage exports by value. In 2020 and 2021 UK sausage exports dropped but mainly because the Qatari purchases disappeared. This may have been due to Covid travel restrictions limiting tourism or perhaps the Qatari’s merely returned their custom to whoever was supplying them pre-2018.
Other than Ireland the only EU countries that buy any quantity of British sausages are countries with large expat communities and/or popular UK tourist destinations, such as Spain. Although even Spain didn’t buy as much as Hong Kong in 2021.
The UK’s main exports to Ireland are: Oil and gas, machinery, organic chemicals, electrical machinery, pharmaceuticals, plastics and vehicles. Do these exports really warrant a border down the Irish sea? The UK exports the same product mix to continental Europe.
As for fears about imports covered with soil: Ireland bought about half of UK exports of live plants in 2021. The second biggest EU market was Portugal. Why would British soil be a threat to Ireland but not to Portugal?
The UK’s largest food exports to Ireland are biscuits and cakes, then dairy products and then Beverages. Added together these are worth less than half the value of UK oil and gas exports to Ireland and I am using 2021 ITC COMTrade figures so before oil and gas prices skyrocketed.
Unsurprisingly, most food goes in the other direction. If we look at UK imports from Ireland: meat and edible offal are the third biggest import by value, dairy products are the fifth and biscuits and cakes are the eighth. Together these three were worth over two billion pounds, more than pharmaceuticals and almost as much as organic chemical imports. If we aggregate all of the various food categories, food is by far the UK’s largest import from Ireland.
If anyone should be worried about unacceptable food slipping over the border, it probably should be the British. But if the British are unperturbed about possible ‘substandard’ food coming in from Ireland, why should the EU be worried?
But what about oranges?
I have been told that the EU’s real concern is not sausages but commodities like diseased oranges from (say) Brazil that could potentially be imported to the UK and then sent to Northern Ireland from whence they could travel to Dublin and be re-exported to Spain and ruin the Spanish orange industry. Let’s examine this case as one example of EU concerns.
There is so much wrong with this scenario that it is hard to know where to begin.
The mere 3,560 tonnes of oranges that Brazil exported in 2021, mainly went to Paraguay, Uruguay, Russia and Argentina. The EU countries that bought Brazilian oranges in 2021 were: Malta who bought 24 tonnes; Greece who bought 17 tonnes; Cyprus who bought 14 tonnes; Denmark and Portugal both bought 3 tonnes each; Germany and Italy bought 2 tonnes each; and France, and the Netherlands both bought 1 tonne.
The second absurdity is that Ireland has never exported oranges to Spain, with the exception of one tonne back in 2005. In fact, of the 862 tonnes of oranges that Ireland exported in 2021, 834 tonnes, or 97%, went to the UK. That leaves a mere 28 tonnes that were sold to the Netherlands, Iceland, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. By the way, those oranges were most likely imported from Egypt, Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands or Germany.
It is worth noting that France bought just under two thousand tonnes of Brazilian oranges in 2020 and Italy bought 1.6 thousand tonnes. They were Brazil’s largest and second largest customers that year. While Portugal was Brazil’s largest export market from 2016 to 2018. Even though Brazil first reported Citrus Greening disease or Huanglongbing (HLB) in 2005. And this is a disease that started in China in the early 1900s and has now spread to almost all orange producing countries except for Australia, Egypt, Morocco, Spain and Zimbabwe. And HLB has been confirmed in South Africa, Spain’s largest supplier of oranges when Spain’s own crop is out of season. Spain also buys oranges from Argentina who have also confirmed the presence of HLB.
I don’t doubt the validity of Spanish orange growers’ fears, but I do doubt that Ireland would be the weak link via which this disease arrives in Spain. That the EU would be more worried about the five tonnes of Brazilian oranges bought by the UK getting to Spain via Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, rather than oranges with the disease arriving via Portugal, (actually next door to Spain), or France (also next door) or Denmark, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Italy, Germany or the Netherlands, who all bought Brazilian oranges in 2021, is a bit of a stretch.
If the EU is worried about the Republic of Ireland being the route of diseases getting to the continent, then I would suggest that they instigate customs checks on any citrus fruit or plants exported from Ireland to the continent. This won’t be as onerous as forcing the UK to check all the food exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Protecting Spanish oranges needs to be instigated by Spain and should cover all of Spain’s borders. A border down the Irish sea will not do this. Spain needs to watch its border with Portugal, France and Morocco as well as any oligarch yachts birthing in Ibiza after visiting Malta or Cyprus or Greece.
The greater danger
Now that the UK is outside the EU, we no longer count most oranges landed at UK ports as UK exports if they are being re-exported to the continent. Hence UK orange exports dropped from over 30 thousand tonnes in 2020, pre-Brexit, to less than one thousand in 2021, post Brexit. But even when they were registered as UK exports before 2021, two thirds of them went to the Netherlands – the main distribution hub for fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables in the EU. Any orange imports landed in the UK now, will still be sent to the Netherlands but are just not registered as UK exports. In short there is a much great chance of any diseased fruit getting into continental Europe via Amsterdam than there is via Northern Ireland.
The border down the Irish Sea was established under a false premise and needs to be removed.