Trade associations from across the UK economy, including the agrifood sector, have urged government to adopt a pragmatic approach in securing a UK-EU trade agreement before January 1st. At the same time, a separate approach from Northern Irish food chain businesses underlines the need for clarity over post-EU trading arrangements.

The government’s recent on/off approach to the trade negotiations, after it missed its own October 15th deadline, is concerning many companies as the end of the EU withdrawal transition period looms.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) issued a statement on behalf of 70 UK trade associations representing more than three quarters of UK firms. It follows an intervention by leading European business groups from France, Germany and Italy that called for a solution to ensure smooth trading conditions.

The CBI statement says a quick agreement matters greatly for jobs and livelihoods. It would turbocharge business preparations and increase confidence in the UK as a place to invest. Crucially, it would also help to ease the sustainable implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“Now is the time for historic political leadership. With compromise and tenacity, a deal can be done,” says the CBI. “Businesses call on leaders on both sides to find a route through.

“The clarity that comes with an ambitious deal will have an instant impact on firms’ efforts to prepare. It will help investment by removing the threat of tariffs and quotas. And it will catalyse confidence through enhanced customs co-operation while making a precious data agreement possible, vital for services industries which make up 80% of the UK economy.  

“Businesses are doing what they can to prepare for Brexit. But firms face a hat-trick of unprecedented challenges: rebuilding from the first wave of COVID-19, dealing with the second and uncertainty over the UK’s trading relationship with the EU.

“With each day that passes, business resilience is chipped away. A swift deal is the single most effective way to support recovery in communities across Europe. After four years of debate, there must be a resolution. 2021 can then be a year to rebuild, rather than regret.”

The NFU adds that 62% of UK agri-food products exports were to the EU and 70% UK agri-food imports from the EU in 2018. “The EU, as a single trading bloc, is the most important international market for UK agri-food products and, given its size and proximity, will continue to be so in the future,” says director-general Terry Jones. “That is why it is critically important that a tariff free, quota free deal is struck as soon as possible.”

• In a separate move, 39 UK agri-food trade bodies warn that many of their member companies might leave Northern Ireland if faced with increased trading costs as a result of a no-deal Brexit.

A letter to Michael Gove, the minister overseeing EU exit, and Defra secretary George Eustice, warned: “the added cost, complexity and trade friction means it will no longer be practical for many of our businesses to supply goods from Great Britain for sale in Northern Ireland after January 1st 2021”.

The Withdrawal Agreement will impose a border along the Irish Sea, rather than a land border – from January 2021, Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU trading rules Therefore there will be new checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

There is particular concern over the export of products derived from plants and animals which will face costly and time-consuming certification. “Lorries and containers used by suppliers will carry mixed consignments, often made up of hundreds of products, each requiring different documentation and subject to checks and inspections,” the lobby warned.