Dr Terry Mabbett reports on efforts to solve plant import problems caused by Brexit.

ANYONE who thinks Brexit and the squaring off between the UK government and the European Commission (EC)/European Union (EU) has been put to bed had better think again. Announced without warning on 3 March was a decision by the UK government to unilaterally extend the grace period (until October) on checks for some goods entering Northern Ireland (NI) from GB under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Also slipping through at the same time but with much less coverage and fanfare was the unilateral lifting on an interim basis (by the UK government) of a previously agreed ban on plants with soil attached, both containerised plants grown in soil and bare-rooted plants with traces of soil on them. This will also apply to plants grown in a compost medium containing bark and other materials and plants with such compost media attached to the roots. Pure peat and pure coconut fibre (coir) compost were already exempt from the ban under the NI Protocol. A proviso is that plants should be sourced from an authorised business that meets GB plant passporting requirements.

All this will clearly come as a relief to NI importers, including plant nurseries, garden centres and stakeholders engaged in tree planting, as well as GB-based companies supplying everything from bare-rooted oak trees and conifers for forest planting to container-grown trees for amenity and landscape situations. They have effectively been prevented from exporting planting material into NI since 1 January.

However, this move clearly poses problems for future cooperation between the UK and the EU. The European Commission said it was ‘blind-sided’ by these unilateral moves and promptly threatened legal action over what it described as a breach of international law, in relation to special arrangements put in place under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

READ MORE: NI buyers forced to ‘bury’ orders for 100,000 GB trees

Maros Sefcovic, the EC vice president overseeing implementation of the agreement, said the EC is now working on “infringement proceedings” against the UK.

Lord Frost, recently appointed to Boris Johnson’s cabinet to ‘take charge of forging a new relationship with Europe’, said the EU has to stop sulking over the UK’s decision to leave and work to make the split a success, adding that the EU’s behaviour has significantly undermined cross-community confidence in the NI Protocol. For his part Boris Johnson dismissed the ongoing dispute as technical issues that “we’re going to iron out”.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the EU, Lord Frost – as Mr David Frost – was the person who personally negotiated the Brexit trade deal on behalf of the Prime Minister, who duly signed it off, apparently in too much of a hurry in order to ‘get Brexit done’.

At a stroke they automatically blocked the export of virtually all container-grown and bare-rooted plants, including hundreds of thousands of tree seedlings, from GB to NI. That’s what happens when you rely on negotiators and signatories with degrees in history and the classics but without any scientific advice or support in the room.

A key reason why Boris Johnson chose David Frost as his chief negotiator was the ex-diplomat’s credentials as a true believer in Brexit, for which he was dubbed ‘Frosty the No Man’ by the UK national press. However, when it comes to scientific principles underpinning growing plants and their substrate requirements, it’s more a case of the ‘Don’t Know Men’.

Northern Irish landowners and British forest nurseries appear to have been thrown some short-term relief, when what they really need is stability and in perpetuity. Raising trees in forest nurseries and their sale for planting to generate woodland and forest is clearly a long-term business requiring long-term solutions.

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