The UK faces renewed pressure in talks this week to agree Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) alignment with the EU, with EU and pro-EU proponents claiming that this will enable the removal of border checks for trade between Ulster and the rest of the UK. Yet as proponents of these arrangements doubtless know, this would not only fail to satisfy the demand for autonomy which was the essence of the Brexit vote, but would cripple Britain’s ability to do meaningful trade deals with other countries.
As Catherine McBride argues for the website, under SPS alignment Britain would have no influence on the regulation of its agricultural industry, and the EU’s protectionist standards would give no room for negotiating expanded trade deals with third countries. And as we’ve highlighted many times before, EU ‘high standards’ in animal welfare and food safety are largely a PR myth, disguised to cover the system’s inherent protectionism.
Alternatively, Australian or New Zealand-style arrangements have been proposed for the food industry. However, this would still require customs certificates on products going to NI. And while the EU believes it can get SPS alignment from the UK – and thus secure Britain’s lucrative food market for its producers – it has a lowered incentive to compromise on Northern Ireland because it can try and use the threat of violence there to force the UK into alignment.
The only check on this strategy will be for the UK to put SPS alignment definitely beyond the reach of EU negotiating ambitions. Aside from public statements of intent, signing trade deals with other countries that recognise their food standards will make SPS alignment effectively redundant. Closing that avenue removes the EU’s perverse incentive to hinder a workable solution within the Protocol – and should stiffen the determination of the UK government to derogate unilaterally if it doesn’t.