The decision of the UK to leave the European Union is one that creates considerable challenges for the agrifood sector. The UK is by far our largest trading partner. Last year we exported almost €5.1 billion worth of agricultural products. This included more than €1.1 billion in beef products and almost €970 million in dairy exports. Ireland is also the UK’s largest destination for its food exports, worth €3.8 billion last year.
This bilateral trade takes place on the basis of harmonised EU rules on animal and public health, and labelling, without complex certification, quota limits or customs duties and tariffs. It is underpinned by the vital support of the CAP budget, to which the UK is a significant net contributor.
Given these linkages and as the UK is a net food importer, both countries have a strong interest in maintaining a close agrifood trading relationship. In addition, the resilience of the Irish agrifood sector is well recognised. Together with the strong commercial relationships built up over years of trading, this will help us to negotiate our way through the challenges ahead.
It is important also to bear in mind that the precise implications of the referendum outcome will depend on the trade and other arrangements ultimately negotiated between the European Union and the United Kingdom. These negotiations may take up to two years - perhaps longer - and over that period existing arrangements will continue to apply.
Nevertheless, my Department has engaged in detailed contingency planning for the possibility of this result and has published a summary of the key actions we are taking to address the contingencies arising from the UK’s decision.
The most immediate concerns for exporters centre on euro-sterling exchange rates. It should be noted that the fall in the value of sterling against the euro, while significant, is not unprecedented. Nevertheless, a sustained period of currency volatility could be of concern. In that regard, the Central Bank of Ireland has pre-established contingency plans to deal with market volatility surrounding the referendum result. The bank will engage with the Department of Finance and individual financial institutions regarding potential risks. Actions by ECB and other global actors will be monitored closely.
I have also asked the relevant agencies, including Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland, to provide practical guidance to SMEs. Last week Bord Bia announced a number of measures to support food and drink businesses. These measures cover areas such as managing volatility impacts, providing consumer and market insight, deepening customer engagement and extending market reach, with the aim of helping companies maintain their competitiveness. Similar support is also being provided by Enterprise Ireland.
Aside from currency fluctuations, the main areas in which potential impacts are foreseen relate to tariffs and trade, the EU budget, regulations and standards, and Customs controls and certification, while complex issues also arise for the fisheries sector.
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However, we must remember that our trading relationship with the UK is not altered in any way until the negotiation process that will dictate the terms and conditions of the UK’s departure is completed.
In the meantime, and as part of our overall contingency planning, I have taken a number of measures to ensure a sensible, coherent approach is adopted, namely: I have established a dedicated unit in my Department to work on all of the issues that I have mentioned; I have convened a consultative committee of stakeholders, which met for the first time last week, to ensure a full exchange of information as the negotiations proceed; I am also ensuring that the response of the relevant agencies is fully co-ordinated through a contact group established under the Food Wise 2025 high level implementation committee; and the Department will continue to feed into the central contingency framework being co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach.