Agriculture: EU Trade Deals

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 3:00 pm, 17th November 2020

4. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline the impacts on the local agriculture sector of being excluded from EU trade deals as a result of Brexit. (AQO 1129/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The UK Government have been negotiating with countries that have a free trade agreement with the EU, with the aim of putting in place a continuity agreement that would apply equivalent provisions to the UK. Those negotiations have made good progress, and it is expected that a large majority of those countries will have a continuity agreement in place on 1 January 2021. Trade with other countries will be able to take place on WTO terms, as is the case at present. Those measures will limit the impact on local agriculture and Northern Ireland goods being excluded from EU trade deals. I understand that there is the potential for difficulties for cross-border trade. A number of solutions are being looked at, but those will need to await developments in the UK-EU trade negotiations.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, agus ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire. What discussion is the Minister having with the Irish Government to mitigate the disastrous impact of Brexit? As he outlined, we are going into World Trade Organization terms in some situations. What discussion is he having to mitigate the impact of Brexit by ensuring that the North can benefit from current and future EU trade deals? I know that Mr Coveney has also raised that issue.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I would welcome the fact that we would have the opportunity to sell our product in as many places as possible, with free trade available to us. I know that a considerable number of free trade deals will be negotiated by the UK Government, very quickly, and we may have even more access through those free trade deals going forward. However, since we are part of the single market and following the rules of the single market, we should be part of the European free trade agreements as well. It is very disappointing that the European Union appears to be excluding us on the basis that it would involve too much work and that, to include us, it would have to open up negotiations with all of the countries with which it has free trade arrangements. It was the European Union's demand that we be included in the single market, as a consequence of the protocol. Therefore it should carry out its obligations to the full and include Northern Ireland in the free trade arrangements that it has with other countries.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

This is a slightly novel moment: I welcome some of what the Minister has just said. I agree that it would be much to the advantage of Northern Ireland producers, particularly in agriculture, to have access to EU free trade deals in order to allow them to take advantage of the opportunities, such as they are, from the protocol. What steps and engagement will he take, further to that, via Dublin or London, or directly via Brussels, to continue to persuade and make the case for our participation in and access to those EU trade deals? I agree with him that it would be great for our producers to have access to those deals.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Our officials are involved behind the scenes at the negotiations, and, regularly, make the case for Northern Ireland. The First Minister and deputy First Minister wrote to the European Union, directly, expressing the views of the Northern Ireland Executive on a range of issues.

There is a potential solution, but Europe does not seem to be prepared to accept it as yet. It is diagonal cumulation, which would mean that goods with content from the European Union, the UK and third countries which have a free trade agreement with both the European Union and the UK would meet the rules of origin requirements under EU free trade agreements. To this point, the EU has opposed diagonal cumulation.

It is particularly important for the dairy sector that we get a solution, because obviously a lot of our milk ends up being processed in Ireland a lot of it goes to Great Britain and a lot of it is sold to third countries. The Middle East and Far East, for example, receive a lot of this product. Because the product is a mixed product, that becomes more challenging. It is important that the dairy sector in particular gets a solution to this, and I encourage the European Union to take up the solution that we have offered.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

The Minister has addressed my supplementary question, but I will ask it. What impact does he anticipate that this will have on milk exported to the Republic of Ireland for processing in cheesemaking, with the resulting product returning to Northern Ireland and then going across the Irish Sea to England?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is tricky. The movement to the Republic of Ireland is the easy bit. If there is no trade deal, the coming back is slightly more difficult. There can be a solution to that, and it is that the quantities of milk that go and the quantities of cheese, butter or whatever that come back could be measured to have pretty much an equal amount, and the UK Government could receive that without any additional tariffs being applied, should tariffs come into play between the European Union and Great Britain as a result of negotiations not delivering a free trade agreement.