The UK Government has announced that full border controls on imports of most goods from the EU will not now be introduced until 1 January 2022. This is a significant delay, as it had previously planned to introduce full controls by 1 July 2021. Although the move is welcome in the sense that it gives businesses more time to prepare, there are also potential downsides – as we explain below.
Brexit: full border controls on EU imports delayed until 2022
What is changing?
Until the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, the UK had remained in the EU Single Market and Customs Union. This meant that goods could enter the UK from the EU without customs declarations and with minimal red tape – and vice versa for UK goods being transported to the EU. The UK's departure from the EU Single Market and Customs necessitates the re-introduction of substantial border red tape on goods. UK exporters to the EU have had to deal with this since 1 January 2021, as the EU did not offer any grace period for businesses to adapt. The UK, by contrast, has suspended the requirement for "upfront" customs paperwork and related checks for the majority of imports from the EU. It originally intended to introduce controls in stages, with full controls being introduced on 1 July 2021.
The UK Government has now announced that most controls will not be introduced until 1 January 2022, effectively postponing them by 6 months. Although we await further detail of the changes to the UK's proposed Border Operating Model for trade with the EU, it now appears that there are 2 key dates:
- 1 October 2021 – all products of animal origin from the EU, certain animal by-products and "high risk" foods which are not of animal origin will be subject to pre-notification and will need to be accompanied by Health Certificates. However, unlike the previous plans for phasing in controls, it does not appear that physical checks on these products will be introduced at the same time (at present, only live animals and plants deemed to be high risk are subject to physical checks). The Government originally planned to introduce these requirements on 1 April 2021.
- 1 January 2022 – this is the date on which the Government expects imports from the EU to be subject to the same requirements as apply to goods imported from the rest of the world. For example, full "upfront" paperwork will be required including customs declarations, together with UK Safety and Security declarations (at present, no Safety and Security declarations are required and customs declarations can be provided in arrears). Meanwhile, physical checks on products of animal origin will be introduced and are expected to be carried out at Border Control Posts located at ports (under the previous plans for phasing in controls, these checks would have been introduced from 1 April but carried out away from ports, with Border Control Posts only coming onstream in July).
Is this good news?
There has been considerable industry concern over levels of preparedness for the previous planned timetable. For example, a number of ports had indicated that they did not expect their Border Control Posts to be ready by 1 July, partly due to problems with government funding. The well-publicised difficulties faced by UK businesses exporting to the EU had also led to concerns that EU suppliers would be even less well prepared than some of their UK counterparts, particularly given that Brexit is less of a high profile issue on the continent. On balance, therefore, the revised timetable is probably good news as it allows more time for prepare. But it is not without potential drawbacks, as explained below:
- The risk of disruption to supplies of fresh produce may be higher in January, when the UK is more reliant on imports – whereas the original July deadline would have coincided with a period during which more UK fresh produce was likely to be available.
- UK businesses may well feel the need to stockpile (yet again) ahead of the 1 January 2022 deadline – which is a time when warehousing space is already at a premium because of the run-up to Christmas (in that respect, the original July deadline would have been preferable); and
- Because it will be a whole year before the full impact of new border controls is felt, the revised timetable could give some EU suppliers a false sense of security that Brexit means relatively little has changed as regards trade with the UK; this could potentially result in even lower levels of preparedness and higher levels of disruption.
How should businesses respond?
UK-based businesses which rely on EU imports should use the extra time to make sure that both they and their EU suppliers are ready for the extra red tape which will apply (mostly from 1 January 2022). In particular, it is critical to ensure that your EU suppliers will be in a position to provide everything you will need as importer to clear goods through customs and, where possible, to secure tariff-free treatment under the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (do not assume that, just because goods are being supplied from the EU, they will necessarily meet the relevant rules of origin to qualify for zero tariffs). See our Brexit importer checklist, which has been amended to reflect the above changes and explains what you need to do to prepare.
Any plans to stockpile ahead of the original 1 July deadline for introduction of full controls should now be rescheduled for the run-up to 1 January 2022. Although stockpiling is not a panacea, it is a reasonable response to the potential disruption that may well occur when full controls are finally introduced (but as noted above, the run-up to Christmas may put extra pressure on warehousing space). The points made in the following briefings which we published last year may also be worth considering:
Finally, EU businesses which export goods to the UK should ensure that they are prepared for the additional red tape which will apply and the potential disruption/delays when these new requirements are first introduced. In particular, the contractual terms on which you supply UK customers may need review and your UK customers will expect you to provide additional documentation (such as proof of origin and/or export health certificates) on an upfront basis. For more detail, see our Brexit Goods Q&A