After more than four years of protracted negotiations and preparations, the Brexit transition period has ended and reality has begun to set in. Queues at ports and airports, customs charges and trading issues are now the norm for consumers and businesses in Ireland and Britain alike.
Now that the United Kingdom has left the EU single market, it is feeling the impact of the loss of unfettered trade with the continent. As we in Ireland enter a new chapter of our relationship with the EU and witness the costs of non-membership in real-time, we must re-examine our trading and diplomatic relationship with the bloc in order to maximise the benefits of our membership.
Though there was huge relief in the securing of an eleventh-hour trade agreement between the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve, avoiding tariffs on our exports to the UK, the seamless Ireland-UK trade we once knew is a thing of the past. And while extensive preparatory work was carried out by most businesses, the impact is being felt.
With Brexit on the horizon for the past four years and more, Irish companies were urged to diversify their exports to non-British markets where possible. As a result, our UK exports decreased from 16 per cent of total exports in 2015 to 14 per cent in 2019. Meanwhile, Irish exports to the eurozone grew by 15 per cent in 2019 and those to North America similarly increased by 16 per cent.
The market for Irish goods in the EU is growing, thanks in large part to trade diversification projects by Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia over recent years. Although travel and traditional trade missions are no longer possible, the Department of Agriculture has complemented these programmes with virtual trade missions, including with the top six German retailers as well as key retailers in Paris.
It is through prioritising these relationships and making our willingness to trade known that we will continue to grow in the European market.
As a result of diversification projects, Irish agri-food exports to the EU have grown in value by 26 per cent from €3.8 billion to €4.75 billion between 2016 and 2019. Our exports of pork, poultry and dairy have been growing steadily, especially in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain where they are in high demand.
Crucially, it is believed that there is still significant room for further growth in demand for Irish agri-food products over the coming years in Europe due to the premium quality of our exports.
Britain’s loss of easy access to the single market is now potentially a gain for Ireland. We have all seen the images of lorries being turned away due to inadequate paperwork, food rotting in pallets and sparse and empty supermarket shelves throughout the UK. Ireland’s ease of access to the European market allows for our high-quality goods to reach the European market in a timely manner and so we may see demand for Irish goods rise based on the ease of access alone.
We need to aggressively pursue opportunities for Irish producers to replace British suppliers in EU market places.
To complement our deepening trade relationship with the EU, we must also seek to deepen our diplomatic links. Recent years have seen new diplomatic posts established in existing embassies in Madrid, Berlin, Paris, Rome, The Hague, Warsaw and the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU in Brussels in response to Brexit, while new offices have been opened in both Frankfurt and Lyon. New offices should also be considered for other cities in EU member states such as Milan, Barcelona, Gdansk or Rotterdam.
By deepening our diplomatic links within the EU, we are better placed to support the efforts by businesses to diversify their export markets, to increase investment in Ireland and to eventually strengthen tourism links when international travel resumes. This is central to the Global Ireland 2025 initiative which will see Ireland better equipped to advance our interests in the EU post-Brexit.
The solidarity shown to Ireland by the EU over the past four years of Brexit debacles has highlighted the immense value of EU membership. Though the UK is a valued friend with whom we have a close relationship that we only want to see grow and flourish, Ireland’s future lies firmly within the EU.
There are few Brexit dividends to be found and so we must seek to take advantage of them as they arise. Expanding our reach into the European market and solidifying our relationship with our neighbours is a clear gift to Ireland of which we must avail.
Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD for the Dublin-Rathdown constituency