UK supermarkets warn of N. Ireland shortages as EU customers face empty shelves

Empty shelves seen at a Marks & Spencer in Paris on January 5, 2020.
Empty shelves seen at a Marks & Spencer in Paris on January 5, 2020. © Alain Jocard, AFP

Britain's leading supermarket groups have called for "urgent intervention" to prevent major disruption to Northern Ireland food supplies amid new post-Brexit regulations, while customers at one major retailer's European stores have already reported several days of empty shelves.


Britain may no longer be a part of the European Union's single market and customs union, but Northern Ireland has a foot in both camps as part of the UK's customs territory while still aligned with the EU's single market for goods.

Under the Northern Irish protocol, which covers post-Brexit trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, supermarkets selling into the territory have a three-month grace period to adapt their supply systems to the new trading reality.

Since the turn of the year, however, some supermarkets in Northern Ireland have had shortages of fresh goods usually imported from Britain because they have struggled to shift to new processes and bureaucratic procedures.

The bosses of retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks & Spencer have written to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, warning that the situation could worsen.

In the letter, seen by Reuters, they said it was essential a long-term solution is agreed with the EU before the grace period for simplified controls ends on March 31.

"All our businesses and suppliers have invested significantly in the last few months to avoid disruption, but that will become inevitable if the proposals governing movement of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are adopted," the letter said.

"We recognise the European Commission needs to see increased compliance to support the concessions it granted through the Northern Ireland protocol, but the current proposals, increased bureaucracy and certification in such a short timescale are unworkable."

Working group

The chief executives called on Gove to create a dedicated working group to co-ordinate government agencies to integrate customs and food controls.

"It also requires an open discussion with the EU explaining why we can't accommodate changes to the current approach to transporting food to Northern Ireland but stressing we are working towards a robust system as quickly as possible," the letter said, urging the government and EU to agree that more time is required to implement a new system.

Gove said on Wednesday that a dedicated team has been set up and was working to find a solution.

"We will make it clear to the European Commission what the consequences would be if supermarkets are not in a position [after March 31] to carry on with the service they provide to Northern Ireland consumers," he told parliament.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there were "teething problems" in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland but that goods were flowing effectively and in normal volumes.

"But I can confirm ... that if there are problems that we believe are disproportionate, then we will have no hesitation in invoking Article 16," he told parliament.

Article 16 of the Northern Irish protocol details so-called safeguard measures that allow either party to take unilateral action if there is an unexpected negative effect arising from the agreement. 

Empty shelves in Europe

The shortages witnessed in Northern Ireland are part of trade disruption that has become increasingly evident since Britain's Brexit divorce was finalised on December 31.

Many British businesses are swiftly discovering that they must now pay duties on exports bound for the EU, despite the breakthrough Brexit free trade deal clinched over Christmas.

This is due to the so-called "rules of origin" condition applied to all goods crossing borders, which means any good will be subject to a customs levy if it arrives in Britain from abroad and is then exported back into the EU.

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High-street retail giant Marks & Spencer (M&S) warned last week that the trade deal would "significantly impact" business in the Czech Republic, Ireland and France, adding that around 2,000 of its food products could be affected by the rules of origin clause.

Since Britain's exit from the single market, M&S has struggled to restock shelves in its EU stores and has even temporarily closed some of its shops, with customers taking to Twitter to bemoan the shortages of ready-meals, curry boxes and cheddar cheese.

As Steve Rowe, the company’s chief executive, put it: “Tariff-free does not feel like tariff-free when you read the fine print.”

Other companies have run into similar trouble since January 1, complaining of red tape and additional levies.

"At least 50 of our members face potential tariffs for re-exporting goods to the EU," William Bain, trade policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium industry organisation, told AFP.

"We are working with members on short-term options and are seeking dialogue with the [UK] government and the EU on longer-term solutions to mitigate the effects of new tariffs," he added.


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