Dutch flower industry welcomes UK’s postponement of new import requirements

BRUSSELS, Belgium: The Dutch flower industry officially welcomes the British goverment’s decision on 11 March to postpone the tightening of phytosanitary rules on imports until the beginning of 2022.

Since the Brexit withdrawl transition period ended on 1 January, exports to the EU from the UK have been subject to controls. But the UK government decided to opt for a phased approach on EU imports to give hauliers and business more time to adapt.

Checks were due to be introduced in stages from 1 April and from 1 July, now Britain will begin these processes a year later than the EU. The reason for this U-turn or “revised timetable” phrased by UK Cabinet Minster Michael Gove, is because the border port infrastructure is not ready.

“This message from London gives much calm in the flower industry sector”, says Eveline Herben of the Dutch Flower Auctions Association (VBN). “The phytosanitary certification of cut flowers has been postponed. This gives the parties involved more time to adjust the logistic processes to the new situation.”

The VBN is an important lobbying organisation in floriculture. The auction acts as a hinge between producers and traders of cut flowers and plants. In that role, VBN is closely involved in all issues arising from Brexit. It does so in cooperation with VGB, the Dutch Association of Wholesalers in Floricultural Products. The organisations are in close contact with the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, the NVWA, the KCB and the agriculture team at the Dutch embassy in London.

Herben is responsible for this dossier at the VBN. She is also chairperson of the flower & plant working group of the European organisation Copa/Cogeca. This EU umbrella organisation has also been working for years on reducing the damage to agricultural trade caused by the UK’s exit from the European Union. “Brexit is a European issue, but when it comes to the ornamental plant sector, the interests of the Netherlands are by far the biggest.”

In an interview with Agroberichten, the network of Dutch agricultural counsellors around the world,  Herben answers a few questions.

When asked if Brexit is a problematic issue, she said, “It is the uncertainty. In November last year, the British authorities suddenly decided that a phytosanitary certificate would be required to export all cut flowers as of 1 April 2021. Before then, the British government said its certification proposal was only necessary for some species of cut flowers. Now it has been postponed again. Given the enormous volumes going to the UK, such a change has major consequences.”

The Netherlands is by far the UK’s most important trading partner in fresh cut flowers. “The figures speak for themselves. The UK imports €1.2 billion worth of plant material and cut flowers per year. Of that, €855 million comes from the Netherlands, or more than 70 per cent. Some of this is grown in other EU countries or comes from third countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia and Ecuador. This trade flow goes via the Netherlands to the UK and therefore also has to deal with new procedures. In total, it is estimated that 250,000 shipments are involved each year. Phytosanitary certification, is a direct consequence of Brexit, therefore it does have an enormous impact. Especially as many shipments contain material from different countries of origin.”

The new trading rules between the EU and the UK means no levies at the border is good for trade from the Netherlands but Herben warns the Netherlands of too much optimism.

“For cut flowers, the tariff would be 8 per cent. The Brexit Withdrawl agreement has set that rate at zero for cut flowers grown in the EU and this is of course a big plus for the sector. But that tariff does not apply to flowers from third countries that go to the UK via the Netherlands. On these items, an 8 per cent import duty is charged.

Herben elaborates, “For example, flowers from Kenya can go directly to the UK at zero duty because of the Kenya-UK trade agreement, but it is not that simple. if the flowers travel to the UK via the Netherlands have been cleared in the Netherlands first. This happens because Dutch traders put together a diverse range of products with different origins for customers in the UK. You can’t just turn around that logistics chain in the floriculture sector.”

Three-quarters of ornamental plant cultivation flows to the UK. Now pre-notification and phytosanitary certificates will become mandatory for cut flowers on 1 January 2022. Physical phytosanitary inspections in the UK will now take place from March 2022.

“The postponement gives our sector some breathing space,” says Herben. She continues, “We will have time to achieve more risk-based inspections and to make smart preparations for the chain. This involves, for example, linking the British digital systems to those of the NVWA. This link is necessary to maintain the speed in the logistics chain and to reduce costs. The bilateral discussions on this subject are now under less time pressure. That is positive, but we must make sure that the sector does not become complacent. Following Brexit, the UK has become a third country and, in any case, that creates obstacles and leads to additional costs. We can only try to limit the damage. That requires action from all parties in the chain. Postponement on a number of points is nice, but the urgency to prepare the export chain to the UK remains just as great.”

Asked about the state of the plants and cut flowers trade between the Netherlands and the UK, Herben notes that the export figures for January and February show a mixed picture. “For cut flowers, a plus of 14.2% was realised compared to the same period in 2020. On the other hand, the export of plants decreased with 12% during those two months. The certification obligation and inspections for plants came into effect on 1 January, which had immediate consequences. This part of the ornamental plant sector has already had a rough time of it.”

Tim Heddema is the Agricultural Counsellor (Head of the Agricultural Department) at the Embassy of the Netherlands in the United Kingdom. He told Agroberichten that he is not surprised by the postponement. He received signals from the British government about it in recent weeks. “The British government has taken it for granted and now part of the agricultural sector is complaining about an uneven playing field because exports to the EU have been subject to the new requirements since 1 January.”

According to Heddema, British Customs has been ready for the certification paperwork, but until the infrastructure is in place, with IT systems ready and established processes for checks and paperwork, it would be foolhardy to introduce full requirements for export health certificate documentation, pre-notification of imports, physical checks and more.

Heddema adds: “The Dutch government has always actively emphasised the scale and importance of our exports to the UK. Now it is important not to rest on our laurels. We are continuing the talks that should lead to the electronic solutions desired by both sides that can ease the burden.”

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