Frictionless free trade? Not yet, anyway…

Feb 09, 2021
Having read the 1,246-page Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which was agreed to “in principle” by the EU and UK on Christmas Eve, Cróna Clohisey shares her thoughts on the critical elements causing concern and highlights areas that warrant further work.

In recent weeks, there has been as much discussion about what the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) reached between the EU and UK on Christmas Eve doesn’t cover as what it does. The deal, spanning some 1,246 pages, threw up some surprises and certainly left a lot for discussion between the two sides in the months ahead.

The main areas covered in the document include trade in goods and certain services, energy, aviation and road transport, fisheries, social security coordination, law enforcement, digital trade and intellectual property. Certain big-ticket items, including decisions relating to equivalence for financial services, the adequacy of the UK’s data protection regime, or an assessment of the UK’s sanitary and phytosanitary regime were excluded, however. These three areas, in particular, are unilateral decisions of the EU and were never subject to negotiation. The TCA does not govern trade in goods between Northern Ireland and the EU where the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will apply, bringing a whole other set of rules – not least in customs and VAT.

Implementing, applying, and interpreting the TCA falls to the newly created Partnership Council. This political body will be co-chaired by a European Commission member and a UK government minister, and decisions will be made by mutual consent. Several specialised committees, including a trade partnership committee, will assist the Partnership Council. Therefore, it seems that negotiations between the EU and the UK on their future relationship are set to continue long into the future. 

In this article, I will look at the TCA elements that are causing concern or require further work.

Trade in goods and customs

The real test for cross-border trade between the UK and EU is really just beginning, given that traffic at ports and borders is generally quieter in the weeks after Christmas. Still, problems with paperwork (which could never be removed by a free-trade agreement), health checks and systems were reported by many companies in the first few weeks of the year. We have heard reports of large retailers reporting shortages on their shelves with retailers in Northern Ireland significantly affected given the customs declarations required for goods brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain – a requirement that seems to have taken some by surprise.  

The TCA’s chapter on rules of origin is particularly cumbersome and has already hampered, and is expected to continue to hamper, existing supply chains. The ‘zero tariffs, zero quotas’ headline celebrating free trade is not all it seems, particularly when only eligible goods qualify for this approach.

Rules of origin determine a product’s economic nationality and where products ‘originate’ is the fundamental basis for determining if tariffs apply. The TCA says that for products to benefit from zero tariffs and zero quotas, goods must be wholly obtained from, or manufactured, in the EU or UK or be substantially transformed or processed in the EU or UK in line with the specific origin rules that apply to the product being exported. Minor handling, unpacking and repacking won’t qualify as sufficiently processed. There could be issues for goods not wholly grown, farmed, fished or mined in either the UK or EU. 
The amount of non-originating materials (i.e. materials not originating in either the EU or UK) that a product can have in order to still benefit from the TCA differs depending on the product. The annexes to the TCA set out the product-specific rules, and you will need to identify the commodity code as a starting point. Some products allow a maximum level of non-originating content (e.g. 50% of the ex-works selling price), but again this varies from product to product.

If, for example, products are processed in the UK, the TCA states that EU origin materials and processing can be counted when considering whether UK exports to the EU meet rules of origin requirements. There is a qualifying production level, for example, called ‘cumulation’.

Another nuance is that some rules of origin require that non-originating inputs used in the production of a good must have a different tariff heading, while some rules require a specific operation to take place in the UK for the goods to be classed as being of UK origin. For certain chemicals, for example, a chemical reaction must occur in the UK.
It’s also important to remember that when goods are exported from a customs territory, origin status is lost (preferential origin status can only apply once). Take leather shoes originating in Spain as an example. When the shoes move from Spain to Great Britain and are then shipped to Ireland, they lose their EU preferential origin status when they leave Great Britain. Because they haven’t been processed or altered in Great Britain, they don’t have UK origin. Therefore, unless the goods move under a special and complicated customs procedure, duties arise on the goods entering Ireland. The now infamous case of Marks & Spencer’s Percy Pig confectionery is an example of this issue.

These issues add to supply chain headaches and give rise to hidden costs. The rules are undoubtedly complex and don’t suit the UK’s significant role as a distribution hub.

Business travel

Free movement of people between the EU and UK ended on 1 January 2021. Of course, Irish and UK citizens are still free to live, travel and work in either country under the rules of the Common Travel Area (CTA). Beyond this category of people, immigration requirements – including securing permission to work and restrictions on the activities that can be performed as business travellers – are now a key consideration for UK nationals moving throughout the rest of the EU, including UK citizens residing in Ireland. Similar policies are in place for EU nationals seeking to travel to, and work in, the UK.
The CTA allows short-term business visitors to enter either jurisdiction visa-free for 90 days in any given six-month period, but there are restrictions on the activities that can be performed. Activities such as meetings, conferences, trade exhibitions, and consultations are allowed. However, anything that involves selling goods or services directly to the public requires a work visa. The specific business situations where a visa is required are set out in the annexes to the TCA.

The environment

In a first for the EU, the fight against climate change has been included as an “essential element” in a bilateral agreement with a third country. This effectively means that if the EU or the UK were to withdraw from the Paris Agreement or take measures defeating its purpose, the other side would have the right to suspend or even terminate all or part of the TCA.

The TCA paves the way for a joint framework for cooperation on renewable energy and other sustainable practices, as well as the creation of a new model for energy trading. However, it allows both sides to set their own climate and environmental policies in areas such as carbon emissions/carbon pricing, air quality, and biodiversity conservation. Divergence from respective environmental and climate laws will be monitored, but this area is not subject to the TCA’s main dispute resolution mechanism. It will instead be governed by a ‘Panel of Experts’ procedure. Time will tell how effective this will be.

Data transfers

Many businesses rely on the ability to transfer personal data about their customers or employees to offer goods and services across borders. A company based in Belfast, for example, might outsource its payroll processing to a company based in Galway. In this case, any restriction on this data’s ability to flow freely would act as a trade barrier.
The EU and UK haven’t concluded a deal yet to allow data to continue to flow freely across borders, but the EU has committed to a decision on the adequacy of the UK’s system (UK GDPR) by 30 June 2021. Until then, the UK will be treated as if it is still part of the EU on data protection grounds, and data can continue to flow freely between jurisdictions. If the EU doesn’t reach an adequacy agreement (although reports suggest that a deal is close), provisions such as standard contractual clauses may be needed in future transfers of data between the UK and EU.

Financial services

Currently, the UK has identical rules to the EU in terms of the regulation of financial services. Supplementary documentation published with the TCA states that the UK Treasury and European Commission aim to sign a cooperation agreement covering financial services regulation by March 2021. The EU has already deemed the UK equivalent for a time-limited basis in clearing and transaction settlement, while the UK has provided the EU with specific findings that would enable EU member states to conduct such business in the UK.

Many other areas of the TCA will be digested and interpreted in the weeks and months ahead. Trade deals are predominantly about trade. Only time will tell if they go far enough in other areas such as environment, security and intelligence, or healthcare, for example. Let’s hope that in the long run, a deal is better than no-deal.

Barry Cullen, Silver Hill Duck

Silver Hill Duck is a perfect example of a cross-border business and the various challenges posed by the new trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

Silver Hill Duck is a duck manufacturing company based in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, with operations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The company controls all aspects of the breeding, farming, production and packaging of its famous Silver Hill Duck breed. Established in 1962, it has supplied the best Chinese restaurants in the UK for the past 40 years. During this time, the company has expanded its customer base to include retail and foodservice, including a range of raw and cooked products.
Barry Cullen, Head of Sales at Silver Hill Duck and President of the Irish Exporters Association, shares the background to his company’s commercial decisions.

“The UK was historically our largest market, and we took some steps before 1 January 2021 to avoid the expected delays that were predicted at the ports. This involved setting up a Northern Ireland company with the appropriate VAT and EORI numbers, and a customs clearance agent to handle the paperwork. Silver Hill also had to source a warehousing partner in the UK that could hold frozen stock for our UK customers.

Trading with our fresh retail customers was suspended for the first few weeks in January due to the uncertainty around delays at ports and the documentation required. The first few weeks of 2021 has shown that this was a prudent decision, as it has become apparent that the UK is nowhere near ready for the new trading requirements. There are major delays at Holyhead with hauliers unable to access the Irish market due to incorrect paperwork and a COVID-19 testing regime that has exacerbated the problem.
It’s a case of learning on the job as our sales team feels its way through the many documentation requirements to send a pallet of product to the UK. For example, despite having done due diligence for over three years, we were not aware of the REX system and the need to be registered to self-certify our goods.

Even though there are no actual tariffs, the customs clearance costs are high at approximately €120 per order, regardless of size, if you act as exporter and importer for the UK customer. This will make much retail business commercially unviable and will have a significant knock-on effect on small- and medium-sized enterprises in the coming months.

There will undoubtedly be a settling-in period for the new trading requirements, but the cost for traders, hauliers and suppliers is as yet uncertain.”

Cróna Clohisey is Public Policy Lead at Chartered Accountants Ireland.