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Importing EU goods into the UK: Examining the changes on the way

Following repeated postponements, the UK Government has finally published its plans to introduce full border controls on imports of goods from the EU.

Ben Chivers, Jonathan Rush and Rachel Woodburn of Travers Smith LLP explain what this means in practice and what businesses need to do to prepare.


Haven't we been here before?


Following the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, it was always expected that the UK Government would (at some point) introduce full border controls on imports from the EU, broadly consistent with its approach to goods from the rest of the world.


However, this process has been subject to repeated postponements. As a result, even though UK exports of goods to the EU have been subject to full EU border controls since 1 January 2021, the same is not true of EU imports of goods into the UK. The main reason for the delays was concern that further controls would lead to disruption to goods supply chains.


What will change?


The Government has now published a draft plan to bring EU import controls into line with those for the rest of the world. Safety and security declarations are expected to be required from 31 October 2024; this will apply to all types of goods. For businesses importing agri-food products from the EU, there will be a phasing in of controls as follows:


  • 31 October 2023: health and/or phytosanitary certificates to be extended to medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products and high risk food and feed of non-animal origin.

  • 31 January 2024: documentary and risk-based identity and physical checks to be extended to the same range of products (NB for medium risk products, physical checks will only be carried out in 1-30% of cases, as compared with the 100% inspection rate for high risk products).

  • Perhaps mindful of the impact of repeated postponements on its credibility, the draft document emphasises that it is the Government's "firm intention" to proceed with the 31 October 2023 milestone for agri-food products set out above and that businesses should start preparing now. The consultation period on the draft plan ends on 19 May 2023.


What does this mean?


Imports from the EU will be subject to the same controls as imports from the rest of the world. This means an increase in red tape for EU imports, although various simplifications and improvements to border control processes mean that imports from the rest of the world may benefit from a reduction in red tape.


Practical consequences


For businesses which rely on EU imports, there are two key practical consequences to be aware of:


  • Disruption as new controls are introduced: Although it is helpful that the controls are being phased in, there may be disruption as businesses and relevant systems adapt to the new rules, particularly around Q4 2023, Q1 2024 and Q4 2024. Even if your business and its suppliers are well prepared, an HGV carrying your goods could still be held up through no fault for your own – for example, by lack of preparedness on the part of others which happen to be ahead of it in the queue to enter the UK. For potential mitigation strategies, see section 7 of this briefing.

  • The impact on groupage for agri-food products: "Groupage" is where goods that you rely on are transported alongside different products, in a "mixed load" (which is often more efficient and therefore cheaper). As the Government recognises in its draft plan, the changes for agri-food products may well mean that for those goods, groupage is no longer viable (as it would expose the other goods in the load to potential delays from physical inspections etc) and they will need to be transported separately. This is likely to increase costs.


Are your EU suppliers prepared?


EU suppliers may not be aware of the planned changes – and may have been lulled into a false sense of security by the slow pace of the UK's introduction of post-Brexit border controls on goods. The risk is that if goods arrive at the border without the correct documentation, they may be refused entry, leading to delays and extra costs. If you do not have a direct relationship with your EU suppliers but rely on e.g. UK wholesalers, it is worth asking those businesses what they are doing to ensure that their EU partners are prepared for the changes.


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