Import of EU goods to Scotland – what checks are happening?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, goods to be sold in Scotland which come directly from EU countries will be subject to checks in the same way goods which come from outside the EU are.

However, the implementation of these checks has largely been delayed to allow further time for the necessary border infrastructure to be put in place.  With the recently agreed Windsor Framework setting out how goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be treated, attention is likely to turn to how goods coming from the EU to Great Britain, including through Northern Ireland, will be checked.

This blog sets out what checks will be needed on goods coming from the EU and why those checks aren’t already happening. It then sets out some background on how Scotland is preparing its international border posts for the imposition of checks.

What checks should be taking place on goods coming from the EU?

While the UK was a member of the European Union it participated in the Single Market meaning, like other EU member states, it observed the same set of rules and regulations.  The UK’s exit means that it is no longer required to observe EU rules – this means that over time the rules and regulations observed by the UK might diverge from those observed by EU countries.  As a result, it will be necessary to carry out checks on goods being imported into the UK from the EU to ensure they comply with UK rules.  For example, checks and declarations will be required to ensure that goods comply with UK safety and production standards and have met UK customs requirements.

Checks at the UK border are also needed to ensure continued biosecurity and food safety. This requires sanitary and phytosanitary checks, for example on:

  • live animals
  • products of animal origin
  • high risk food not of animal origin
  • plants and plant products.

Some border checks were introduced in January 2021 on “the highest risk categories of live animals and animal by-products not for human consumption”.  In addition, checks on some “high-priority plants and plant products” were carried out “at destination”.  The UK Government also introduced full customs controls on all goods coming from the EU to Great Britain from 1 January 2022.

However, a number of checks and required certifications were delayed.  These related to the following:

  • A requirement for Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks currently at destination to be moved to a Border Control Post (BCP).
  • A requirement for safety and security declarations on EU imports.
  • A requirement for health certification for further SPS imports.
  • A requirement for SPS goods to be presented at a BCP.
  • Prohibitions and restrictions on the import of chilled meats from the EU.

The full panoply of checks was initially delayed by the UK Government firstly in an announcement in June 2020 when it was indicated that checks on all products of animal origin and all regulated plants and plant products would not begin until April 2021.  In addition, safety and security declarations were delayed until July 2021.

These delays have since been extended another three times, most recently in April 2022 when the UK Government announced that these further checks would be delayed until the end of 2023.  The Official Controls (Extension of Transitional Periods) (Amendment) Regulations 2022 set out that appropriate SPS checks would be delayed until 31 December 2023.  The UK Government also delayed the safety and security import requirements for goods from the EU – it has yet to confirm when those requirements will take effect.

Why aren’t the checks happening already?

Following the UK’s exit from the EU’s legal framework  at the end of December 2020 , checks were immediately put in place on all goods travelling from Great Britain into the EU.  This led to delays for Scottish exporters getting goods to the EU market and was a particular problem for Scottish seafood producers with their perishable goods.

In contrast, the UK Government delayed introducing routine checks at the end of the transition period.  This was largely because the infrastructure required at border control posts was not in place. 

When the UK Government further delayed checks until the end of 2023, it said the reason was to avoid imposing new costs on UK business:

“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the recent rise in global energy costs, have had a significant effect on supply chains that are still recovering from the pandemic.

The government has therefore concluded that it would be wrong to impose new administrative requirements on businesses who may pass-on the associated costs to consumers already facing pressures on their finances.

The change in approach is expected to save British importers at least £1 billion in annual costs.”

What is the Scottish Government’s role?

Most policy in relation to entry at Scotland’s international border relate to reserved matters.  However, the Scottish Government is responsible for checks on sanitary and phytosanitary goods (animals, plants and food).

As a result, the decision to extend delays to implementation of those checks was one for the Scottish Government to make.  With the Scottish Government deciding to adopt a GB-wide approach, the Scottish Parliament approved the Scottish Government consenting to the relevant statutory instrument being made at UK level.  

Despite giving consent to a GB-wide approach, in a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon MSP expressed frustration with the UK Government’s fourth delay:

“The reaction to the UK Government’s announcement from Scottish stakeholders has not been positive for understandable reasons. Key concerns have included the time and money invested in preparing for the July 2022 import controls, only for this to be changed with little warning. The Scottish Government shares businesses’ concerns as there will continue to be in play an uneven playing field between Scotland’s importers and exporters as outlined in the answer to the question above in relation to SPS controls and the lack of GB reciprocal measures.”

The Cabinet Secretary’s letter also highlighted the role of local authorities in undertaking the SPS checks. 

“Some LAs were already in the process of recruiting Official Veterinarians (OVs) given that OV inspections and sign offs were a requirement of the proposed July 2022 import checks. On the basis of this recent unilateral decision by the UK Government to delay these import checks LAs are now faced with further uncertainty and it is likely that LAs will only be able to make decisions on OV recruitment with regard to the future implementation of a full import SPS check regime on a piecemeal basis.”

Stakeholder concerns

The level playing field issue – that Scottish exporters to the EU faced a number of checks on their goods before they could enter the EU market whilst EU producers faced no equivalent checks – was highlighted by Scotland Food and Drink when the latest delay was announced:

“Whilst this further delay might be welcome news for members that import ingredients or other products from the EU, it will continue the competitive disadvantage facing our businesses competing in the UK Market and particularly those that export, who will continue to face all the costs and bureaucracy for selling to the EU whilst our EU competitors face none of the same barriers selling to the UK.”

The lack of a level playing field was also highlighted by the Institute of Directors in April 2022 when it wrote:

“Businesses will therefore be relieved they will not have to incur the further burden of full import controls that were due in July. This is particularly welcome given the significant pressures on business as a result of rising costs, the impact of the war in Ukraine, and recovery from the pandemic.

That being said, if EU companies are able to send goods to the UK without full controls while UK companies are subject to huge administration when sending goods to the EU, UK companies are at a competitive disadvantage on the continent when compared to their EU counterparts.”

The biosecurity risk presented by no SPS checks was highlighted by the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) as recently as January 2023.  The NFUS expressed concerns that the lack of SPS checks “leave farmers and crofters exposed to the introduction of devastating animal diseases such as African Swine Fever”.  A press release from the NFUS stated:

“The longer there is no system in place, the greater the distortion of the market for UK producers – with importers facing less bureaucracy that those looking to export meat from the UK to EU – and the longer our borders are left unprotected against the introduction of livestock diseases, such as African Swine Fever (ASF), into the UK herds and flocks…

…Whilst the delays in UK Government introducing border controls remain hugely frustrating for the industry, we hope they mean there will ultimately be a ‘fit for purpose’ system, when it does come into play.  The last thing the industry wants is a poor system brought in just to meet a strict deadline  We need reassurance from the UK Government that a realistic plan is in place giving the development of the new system the focus and resources it needs to deliver an effective system without further delays.”

The NFUS highlighted two elements of checks that should be introduced at the border:

  • Normal customs border checks that should be in place for any product coming into the country, ensuring products are what they say they are.
  • Specific to meat products, there should be checks of health certificates to ensure against importing meat from high-risk disease areas.

How is Scotland preparing its international border posts for the imposition of checks?

Scotland already has a number of border control posts (BCP) located both at airports and ports which have been established to check items and goods which have come into Scotland from outside the EU. Following EU exit, these checks will also need to be undertaken on goods coming from the EU. 

A number of Scotland’s ports which trade with the EU will now require greater infrastructure to deal with these new requirements. The main port in Scotland affected by the new import requirements following Brexit is Cairnryan which will be used to inspect goods arriving in Scotland from the Republic of Ireland and the wider EU via Northern Ireland.  While responsible for constructing the new facilities, the Scottish Government has sought funding for the BCP from the UK Government At the time of writing, it is not clear whether any agreement on funding has been reached, though the UK Government has provided funding through the Port Infrastructure Fund which is discussed later in the blog. 

Further up the west coast, Clydeport announced a £17 million Investment in June 2022 to “to “future-proof” the freight port as it prepares to accommodate increased demand from cargo owners”.  The investment was to support the building of a “purpose-built multi-agency border control post” which owner Peel Ports said was required to allow all commodities to be imported and exported in the face of changing legislative requirements due to Brexit.

On the east coast a number of ports will be responsible for SPS checks on EU origin goods, for example, Grangemouth and Rosyth for products of animal origin and products of non-animal origin, along with plants, plant products and wood and wood products.  In addition, Dundee, Methill, Leith, Kirkcaldy and Burntisland have facilities to check a mixture of plant or wood products. The east coast ports are all owned by Forth Ports and have facilities in place to handle the new EU requirements, this is partly due to their experience trading with the rest of the world:

“Forth Ports already has extensive experience in handling non-EU goods – as such all our ports have existing Temporary Storage approvals and I.T. systems in place to handle goods subject to Customs and border controls. Whereas only unitised cargo handled is currently inventory linked, legally from 1 January 2022 all cargo arriving at all Forth Ports facilities must be inventory linked. Forth Ports has existing Border Control Posts (BCP), CTC Transit and Border Force facilities and has finished constructing enhanced and new BCPs facilities which will become operational as and when required during 2022.”

The UK Government also provided funding to Forth Ports of £11.7 million for new border inspection facilities at its ports in Tilbury and Grangemouth. 

The Port Infrastructure Fund

The Port Infrastructure Fund was launched on 2 October 2020 to enable maritime ports, airports and international rail termini currently handling goods imported from the EU to access funds to build the necessary infrastructure and facilities to enable customs and sanitary/phytosanitary checks to be carried out at ports following EU exit. The UK Government allocated £200 million in funding for the scheme.

Allocations from the fund were announced in December 2020.  Scottish ports received the following allocations:

Whilst this funding supported the development of 41 Border Control Posts, the UK Major Ports Association has estimated ports themselves paid out an additional £100m to get the work done in time.


As a result of Brexit, the UK will need to implement checks on goods coming from the EU to ensure continued biosecurity and food standards along with wider product standards.  These checks on goods are still to be fully implemented with the UK Government having delayed them on four occasions. 

The conduct of sanitary and phytosanitary checks on goods coming into Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish Government.  The Scottish Government has adopted a similar approach in terms of delaying border checks so ensuring a GB-wide approach.  However, the Scottish Government has expressed frustration with the UK Government’s fourth delay to checks whilst Scottish business has highlighted the lack of a level playing field with EU competitors and the risks to Scotland’s biosecurity.

The delay to checks have allowed ports across Scotland to build new or improved current Border Control Posts required to ensure goods coming into Scotland from the EU will not damage Scotland’s biosecurity, food safety, and safety and standards.  A number of ports across Scotland have made improvements to their facilities, in part these improvements have been made with financial support from the UK Government. 

The effectiveness of the improvements will become apparent when the UK starts to conduct fuller checks on goods coming from the EU, currently scheduled for the end of 2023.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research