Boris Johnson is to order another delay to the introduction of post-Brexit border checks on goods entering Britain from the EU, in an admission that piling new costs on imports would exacerbate the cost of living crisis.
Full checks on imports from the bloc were supposed to come into effect on July 1, but the prime minister has sided with Tory rightwingers who argue that Brexit is an opportunity to cut red tape at the border.
Johnson’s allies said it was “inevitable” that checks would be delayed again — for the fourth time since the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020. There is a live debate on the length of any new grace period.
The prime minister signalled the move on a visit to India. “I’m generally in favour of minimal friction at all junctures between the UK and the EU,” he told reporters.
“New technology will make some of the checks we have obsolete.” That was a reference to a promise by the government to create “the world’s most effective border” by 2025.
Johnson’s allies confirmed one option being considered by ministers — and promoted by the likes of the Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg — was to refrain from new checks until the new border systems were in place.
“Now is not the time to be piling new costs on companies,” said one colleague of the prime minister. It could mean that EU goods would enter the British market with minimal checks for years after the UK had left the bloc.
Critics of Brexit have noted the irony that British exporters now face border costs when selling goods into the EU, while their counterparts in mainland Europe have their products waved through at the UK border with only loose checks.
Goods arriving from the EU are not subject to safety and security declarations, while food and plant products are not physically checked.
Rees-Mogg and former Brexit minister Lord David Frost have urged Johnson to extend the border checks “grace period”, which has been largely welcomed by companies that rely on a pan-European supply chain.
But it is contentious within government with industry executives reporting that both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Trade initially resisted a fourth delay.
Agrifood industry groups have broadly welcomed the move, given the additional pressures on supply chains caused by the Ukraine crisis.
Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation, said that Ukraine was causing ingredient shortages and rising costs across the food and drink industry, with wheat, sunflower oil and white fish particularly affected.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, added that a decision to delay checks again comes as no surprise, given that not all government systems and sites would be fully ready by July. “On balance, it’s better that these checks are introduced when preparations are fully complete,” he added.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said that while a further delay entrenches unfairness between UK food exporters and EU-based businesses importing into UK, it was the correct move.
“We import at least three times as much food from the EU than we export. The impact of additional cost and uncertainty for our imports will be felt across the UK food supply chain if the checks go ahead,” he added.
The CBI, the employers’ organisation, said that while the move was “understandable”, given the strains on supply chains caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, in the longer term not applying checks “disadvantages UK exporters at a time when trade is already acting as a drag on growth”.