The conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was a significant achievement for all concerned. The historic deal provides for tariff- and quota-free trade between the EU and the UK and protects Ireland’s place in the Single Market. It also establishes a foundation for a strong future partnership and positive engagement and co-operation between the EU and the UK in the period ahead.
Of critical importance is the fact that Ireland’s €92 billion trade in goods, services and agrifood with the UK will not be subject to unwelcome tariffs.
Another very important dimension of the TCA is the arrangements it puts in place for international connectivity, including aviation and road haulage, co-operation on cross-border law enforcement, energy links, trade in services as well as goods and a range of other important areas such as UK involvement in EU programmes, including the Horizon research programme and PEACE PLUS.
In addition, a legally secure bridging mechanism has been put in place to allow for the continued smooth flow of data between the EU and the UK. This avoids potential disruption to current arrangements where companies in Ireland have payroll and other processes carried out in the UK. It also enables Irish service providers to continue serving UK customers, with no requirement to adjust existing arrangements.
The arrangements for air travel mean point-to-point flights between the UK and EU destinations, including Ireland, can continue to operate smoothly. This will help maintain vital trade and business corridors between Ireland and the UK.
There are also new arrangements on ownership and control, and marketing cooperation between airlines. The impact of these arrangements has already been seen, with Ryanair moving to restrict the voting rights of UK-based shareholders.
The UK’s departure from the Single Market does mean new restrictions on British airlines, with point-to-point routes between EU destinations no longer open to them, for example.
The arrangements on road connectivity are particularly welcome as they make explicit provision for the unique situation of the island of Ireland, and the rights for our haulage sector are protected as much as possible. The agreement provides for point-to-point access between the EU and the UK, which covers the majority of traffic between Ireland and the UK.
Irish hauliers will also enjoy some cabotage rights within the UK. These will allow hauliers to deliver a load to one destination in the UK and then carry goods to another destination there. North-South cooperation on road haulage is protected, while Irish hauliers will retain the right to transit through the UK to third countries outside the UK, such as Switzerland.
But tariff- and quota-free trade does not mean barrier-free access. While the TCA is fundamentally in Ireland’s interest, it cannot and does not replicate the status quo which existed prior to Brexit. The UK’s decision to leave the EU means that the EU-UK relationship cannot be as close as it was before 1 January 2021.
From a practical point of view, this means that Irish goods are now subject to customs checks and controls on entry to the island of Britain. This applies to all goods destined for the UK market or transiting Britain en route to the EU or other markets.
To illustrate the scale of the challenge this presents for Irish business, it is estimated that the number of declarations made by Irish firms each year will increase from 1.7 million a year to more than 20 million as a result of Brexit
A great many Irish businesses have already prepared for this new situation and have put in place arrangements to cater for it. Those who are not yet ready need to act now if they are not to suffer severe disruptions to their business.
The first step in the preparation process is to obtain an EORI (Economic Operators Registration and Identification) number. This is a European Union registration and identification number for businesses which undertake the import or export of goods in or out of the EU. Companies can register for a number through Revenue’s EORI online registration service; the process is very straightforward and can be completed in minutes.
After that, companies need to determine the commodity code for the product or products they are exporting. Companies can find detailed lists of these codes on the Revenue website (revenue.ie).
The next step is to decide who will be handling the customs declarations. In many cases, firms will use logistics partners or customs brokers to do this, but SMEs may well decide to do it themselves either to reduce costs or due to difficulties in finding a suitable partner.
Making declarations online is known as Direct Trader Input (DTI) and requires importers, exporters or their agents to have dedicated software making electronic declarations to the Automated Entry Processing (AEP) system. To do this, companies need to register with Revenue and obtain a digital certificate to make declarations to the system.
Several software products which can handle electronic declarations are available on the market and many of them can interface with ERP and accounting software to extract the data required for the declarations.
Accuracy is absolutely critical. There are more than 50 data points in a customs declaration and a slight error in any one of them will slow down or stop the shipment.
Where companies do decide to use a partner to handle customs on their behalf, they should not rely on business carrying on as usual in the early months of the new arrangements. The massive increase in the volume of declarations will put even the largest and best-prepared operators under strain. Companies need to talk to their partners and ask them if they are ready, if they have taken on more staff, and how high up their priority list they are.
For larger exporting companies, there is the option to apply for Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) status with Revenue. This allows them to self-certify exports and receive priority treatment when their goods are crossing borders. Traders that have registered under Authorised Economic Operator schemes will be mutually recognised in the EU and UK under the TCA.
At another very practical level, businesses must prepare for delays in supply chains, both for imports and exports. The massive traffic jams witnessed at Dover and Calais and other English Channel ports before Christmas gave some indication of what could happen in worst-case scenarios. Many importers and exporters will have to increase stockholdings to cater for such delays and this will require them to invest in warehousing and other storage facilities as well as potentially change the terms of trade with their customers and suppliers.
Those exporters who are not yet ready for the new customs regime should use the traditionally quiet period at the beginning of the year to prepare for it. Enterprise Ireland has a suite of supports available to help firms get ready and an excellent starting point in the process is the online Brexit Readiness Checker which delivers a personalised report that highlights any gaps in preparations, identifies priority areas for attention, and gives details of where to find help and support, all in 15 minutes.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) may not have replicated the frictionless status quo which has existed up until now, but it certainly represents a vast improvement on what a no-deal Brexit would have meant for Ireland and Irish businesses. As such, the challenge now is to make the most of that and take advantage of the tariff- and quota-free access to the UK market which the deal has delivered.