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From Belfast to Brussels the arguments may be different, but the tensions over trade are the same

By SEC Newgate team
30 January 2024
Trade & Industry Groups
Public Affairs
By Sophie Richardson

Power sharing at Stormont looks set to be restored and a two-year suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is at an end. The issue of trade has been at the core of the arguments over the region’s post-Brexit future.

The DUP leadership has been persuaded in the early hours of the morning that amendments to the UK internal market act will be made to strengthen Northern Ireland’s relationship within the Union. An additional £3.3 billion package for public services further helped to shift opinion at the five-hour meeting. 

Northern Ireland remains inside the EU single market for goods. Part of the promise of Brexit for anti-EU campaigners was the ability to diverge from legislation agreed in Brussels. DUP leader, Sir Jeffery Donaldson, has demanded “zero checks and zero custom paperwork” between Britain and Northern Ireland from the deal. If this is not met, unionist pushback should be expected.

And trade could not have been more in the headlines in Europe this morning as more than a thousand French farmers’ tractors blocked routes into Paris. This time the issue is over allowing grain exports from Ukraine into the EU. In a breakaway from Macron’s normal pro-EU stance, his government has pointed protestors towards Brussels and called for “agricultural patriotism” - criticised by some as a short-term attempt to win back right-wing voting farmers that could undermine longer-term ambitions of a European green transition.

Agriculture was also at the heart of a “pause” in trade talks between the UK and Canada on Friday – the first formal suspension with a trade partner since the UK left the EU trading regime in 2021.

With the UK not relaxing its ban on hormone-treated beef, negotiations to remove the 245% import tariff on British products, imposed after a time-limited agreement ended in December, broke down. The National Farmers’ Union welcomed the UK’s firm stance, while the British Chambers of Commerce and Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders were less than pleased by the failure to get progress on tariffs.

The issue of agricultural access will continue to cause tensions this year, from Stormont to Brussels. The French Prime Minister’s call for a “French agricultural exception” prior to Thursday’s EU leaders’ summit, sets the stage for such tensions. We can also expect to see further conflict in light of the EU’s deal with South America, an issue which is set to be a key battleground in June’s EU parliamentary elections.