Jacob Rees-Mogg, the UK’s Brexit opportunities minister, has defended his decision to delay for a fourth time full post-Brexit border checks on imports from the EU, claiming it would save £1bn a year and control rising living costs.
Port operators were critical, saying the £100mn they had spent in preparation for the checks from July 1 “now looks like wasted time, effort and money”, and that they would seek government reimbursement.
Meanwhile the British Veterinary Association and farmers’ leaders claimed that dangerous animal and plant diseases could enter the country through an effectively open border.
Checks have now been delayed until at least the end of 2023. But Rees-Mogg’s allies said they hoped physical border checks — barring some spot inspections of animals — would never be needed and that a new digital trade system was due to come into operation in 2024.
Rees-Mogg, in an interview with the Financial Times, said he was “on the side of consumers”, claiming that new border checks would have added pressure to household bills; the cost of groceries rose by 5.9 per cent in a year, according to data published this week.
The policy means that while EU companies can sell into the British market without onerous health and safety checks — particularly on agrifood products — British exporters face a full range of post-Brexit checks for goods travelling in the other direction.
Rees-Mogg insisted that “one-way free trade is enormously beneficial”, adding that the move would shield consumers from added costs and help smooth supply chains for UK businesses using EU imports.
He said he would prefer two-way free trade, but added: “Just because one country has protectionism doesn’t mean you should be protectionist too. The EU has always been a protectionist racket.”
The minister, speaking on a visit to Eurotunnel at Folkestone, ridiculed many of the checks planned for July 1.
He said they would have increased the price of fish fingers by 1 per cent. “Why add to the costs of the staples of people’s lives?” he said. “What’s the risk of a fish finger?”
Ministers smuggled out previous announcements on delays to EU import checks in low-key press statements, but Rees-Mogg now proudly claims that opening up Britain’s borders is a major benefit of Brexit.
In practice it means that post-Brexit Britain is partly relying on the EU to maintain high standards for the goods and animals entering the UK. Rees-Mogg said the EU was “a highly regulated market”.
He ultimately wants to cut border controls and tariffs for most trade entering Britain, including from countries outside the EU, although international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan argued these were privileges which should be negotiated in trade agreements.
James Russell, senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, said the government’s move “flies in the face” of ministers’ commitment to preserve high levels of animal and human health at a time when diseases such as African swine fever had already had a catastrophic impact in parts of Europe.
Minette Batters, National Farming Union president, said the decision was “astounding” and “unacceptable”. “These checks are absolutely crucial to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and food safety and without them we really do leave ourselves at risk,” she said.
Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group, said port operators feared the facilities they had built would “be highly bespoke white elephants.
“Government needs to engage urgently with ports to agree how the substantial investments made in good faith can be recovered,” he said. “We will of course be working closely with the government on its new vision of a slimmer and smaller regime of border checks.”
Without the delay, from July 1 so-called sanitary and phytosanitary checks would have required imports of EU animals and agrifood products to be checked by vets and other health officials on arrival in the UK.
Instead, those checks will continue to be carried out “at destination”, away from the border. EU imports will also not be required to have accompanying “safety and security declarations”, or health certificates, which are required on UK goods arriving in the EU.
Trade groups broadly welcomed the move, but also expressed frustration over the continued moving of goalposts, which one insider said had cost time and money.
Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation, which represents leading manufacturers in the sector, welcomed the clarity that the decision had given the industry and urged the government to use the time to streamline border processes.
A European Commission spokesman said: “This is a UK decision regarding its own border and therefore we have no comment to make.”
Rees-Mogg has become a leading cheerleader in Boris Johnson’s cabinet for deregulation; this week he called for Britain to unilaterally drop tariffs on food imports. Trevelyan said she opposed the idea.
He also wants to remove restrictions on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, breaching Britain’s Brexit treaty deal, claiming it was “improbable” that the EU would respond with a trade war.
The minister, who has recently made news for his campaign to bring civil servants back to their Whitehall desks, showed reporters a picture of a Cabinet Office department — based in the Treasury building — with “absolutely no one there”.
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels