Closing EU door will be hard on smaller firms

Dozens of food and drink products from smaller local companies were showcased at a major event in the Northern Ireland Executive’s Office in Brussels on Tuesday evening. The event was organised by our members in Ulster Artisans, the voluntary body formed by many local companies.

It was a great idea that Food NI was delighted to support. We have a track record in the development and promotion of initiatives to raise the profile of local companies outside Northern Ireland particularly in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The objective of the event in Brussels was to increase awareness of the breadth and quality of our food and drink and participating producers at the heart of the European Union. The project was also supported by Invest NI.

It proved to be an immensely successful event that produced great contacts with influential business people in the Belgian capital.

I still find it hard to accept that organising such promising marketing initiatives for smaller food and drink companies here could become much more difficult after the United Kingdom exits the European Union in the not too distant future. Europe is, after all, among the biggest international markets for our food and drink. And EU member the Republic of Ireland is our biggest single market beyond Great Britain.

The Benelux region has long been the main springboard for our companies seeking to grow sales in the EU and beyond. Several of the companies at the presentation are hoping to follow up contacts made during the presentation and win sales in the region. But will they be able to sustain any business agreed post-Brexit? And what’s the point for any potential customers against the background of a looming Brexit and the prospect of high tariffs being introduced which would impact adversely on prices? What will our relationship with the EU be like if the exit proves to be a bruising one?

I know most of our companies are concerned about the likely impact on their trade opportunities if the UK’s decision to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ to Europe, the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ is implemented. They had hoped for continued full and unfettered access to the single market. What the Government can achieve in terms of a trade deal with the remaining EU remains to be seen.

Overall, our agri-food industry and short-term prosperity, especially in rural communities, are heavily dependent on EU business. The industry’s concerns have also been exacerbated by suggestions that trade deals with other parts of the world could take up to 10 years to finalise.

And for many of our smaller and medium sized companies some of the ‘glorious opportunities’ being promised wouldn’t be that easy to access, to supply and service. There are also real concerns about the likelihood of the promised trade deals producing a flood of cheaper food and drink from countries with lower hygiene and animal husbandry standards than those currently being observed here.

Challenging times lie ahead for our most important industry. A united voice involving all stakeholders is clearly more important than ever before.