I was delighted to see progress made in the negotiations with the EU. A comprehensive deal on tariff-free trade and as free a flow of goods and services as possible with the EU is essential for consumers.
EU imports are key to ensuring a fantastic choice of affordable products, by supplementing those produced here in the UK.
Now that the Brexit negotiations can move on to the next phase, attention turns to the terms of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU.
The BRC has long campaigned for a standstill transition on current trading and co-operative terms as we leave the EU. We are pleased negotiations will begin next month on the principles of how this would work.
However, a cliff-edge must not become a gangplank. In the final deal, maintaining tariff-free trade with Europe, supported by as frictionless trade as possible, is vital to ensure we maintain the choice and availability of affordable high-quality products for consumers.
“Alongside the UK-EU trade deal we also mustn’t forget those existing trade deals the UK has with other countries, through its membership of the EU”
Nowhere is this more important than in food, where nearly 80% of our imports are from the EU and WTO tariffs on imported products such as cheese and meat are extremely high – more than 50% in some cases.
With stagnant wage growth and inflationary pressure squeezing household incomes, there is an urgent need to protect consumers from additional cost increases wherever they can be avoided.
Alongside the UK-EU trade deal we also mustn’t forget those existing trade deals the UK has with other countries, through its membership of the EU.
Trade deals with countries such as South Africa, Canada and Chile are very important to British consumers. They enable retailers to source products at preferential rates and add to the diversity of choice that consumers have come to expect all year round.
Priority and necessity
These deals need to be transferred to the UK by March 29, 2019 to enable us to maintain their benefits. However, transitioning them is not straightforward.
As well as completing the paperwork, which in itself is a mammoth task, the other countries concerned may seek to renegotiate terms above and beyond those in the agreement with the EU.
Recognising time is short, we have analysed retail supply chains to identify those countries with trade deals which are particularly important to UK consumers.
“Passing the first stage of the negotiations has helped instil some much needed certainty for retailers, which would be further strengthened by rapid agreement on a transition period, principles and rules”
Taking account of this data will ensure that, if it is not possible to transfer all these arrangements in time, at least those that are most significant to UK consumers are in place.
Passing the first stage of the negotiations has helped instil some much needed certainty for retailers, which would be further strengthened by rapid agreement on a transition period, principles and rules.
The proposed two-year period, during which retailers will need to adjust their processes to cope with potential additional checks at the borders, will buy valuable time to try and mitigate unnecessary delays and interruptions to supply.
Even so, this will still be a huge challenge.
To help, we need to see action on the co-ordination of controls at the border. A number of agencies will be checking the products, the drivers and whether customs payments have been made.
We need to see more evidence that the UK Government is co-ordinating these agencies and working with retailers to agree the best way to reduce red tape.
The countdown is on to ensure we are in the best position to cope with the challenge of Brexit from day one.
Now is the time to move the Brexit talks on to the principles and terms around the transitional arrangements, to ensure businesses have the certainty to plan and invest, and that consumers don’t face higher costs or delays from tariffs or onerous customs barriers.
- Helen Dickinson OBE is chief executive of the British Retail Consortium