Northern Ireland’s business community has united as never before to make sure it is heard and the consequences of crashing out of the EU next March are understood.

Stephen Kelly is the Chief Executive of Manufacturing NI, he writes for Slugger about why the Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union should be supported.

A community has found it voice. Reluctant, yet determined, Northern Ireland’s business community has united as never before, to make sure is heard, and that the consequences of crashing out of the EU next March are understood.

Some may have been frustrated that Northern Ireland’s businesses and their representatives have been too quiet, but we haven’t been idle. We have studied, provided evidence, advice and analysis and built our networks. We have been active in engaging, challenging and in making it clear that whatever agreement was made between the UK and the EU, it must be workable.

And, whilst not perfect, this Withdrawal Agreement is workable.

No deal is ever perfect and if a better deal is struck, then, as now, we will study it and give our view.

But, as things stand, the alternative is no deal, crashing out in March and the resulting consequences particularly for jobs.

So, all business, trade and agricultural bodies, the trade unions and indeed community and voluntary sector agree that ‘No Deal’ is not an option.

Business, by necessity, is focused on the practicalities rather than the politics. A pragmatic approach driven by the reality of having to pay wages this Friday and every Friday up to and beyond 29 March next year.

A new trade, veterinary and customs relationship cannot be agreed until the UK leaves the EU. But to get there, a Withdrawal Agreement is required. Those are the rules, whether they are liked or not. If the cost is the comfort of the ‘Backstop’ in order secure the transition period and for these negotiations to continue to the next, more productive phase sorting the future UK EU relations with a deal then we believe that is acceptable and workable. Any issues or gaps in the Agreement are not insurmountable.

So, what does the Agreement mean?

  • We will have unfettered access to the EU and the UK market – none of our sales are threatened.
  • There will be some need for checks on goods coming into NI, but these mostly build on checks already in place, or in the market with a legal commitment for both sides to work to reduce these checks if no new future relationship is agreed.
  • It ensures no quotas, tariffs nor origin rules between GB and NI and with the EU. That means no costs W/E as well as N/S.
  • We would be able to benefit for existing EU trade deals and the UK can include us in their new trade deals – the EU are only interested in what arrives into its market to circulate.
  • NI Qualified Persons (QPs) can release products into the EU market – that alone would save many millions of pounds of sunken investment, and jobs in pharma.
  • Important market authorisation certification will need to be done by EU27 authorities, but this needs to be done only once. The UK will recognise NI products certificate if provided by an EU body. If firms sell only into the UK, then this is not required.
  • A UK(NI) origin and labelling status allows our firms to identify goods as having authority to be in either the UK or EU markets and secured by the relevant global trade deals.
  • Only UK authorities will administer processes. There is no EU involvement. We remain in UK’s VAT area with HMRC still running the show, but NI established firms will continue to have access to the VIES system, meaning there’s no need to pay VAT at a Border – a huge benefit over what other UK firms will have to fund from cash flow.

Concerns about the promise of “unfettered access” to the UK market as articulated in Paragraph 50 of the December 2017 Joint Report are well made. However, as is clear in the Agreement, “nothing in the Protocol will prevent the UK from meeting its commitment to unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses.” It further says this “will be given further effect domestically.” It is for the UK only, not the EU, to provide this certainty.

So, that begs the question. What has been done by the Government or Parliamentarians to lock down “unfettered” access to the UK market? Would that not go some way to secure a better deal for our businesses and workers?

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