Ohen I voted to remain a member of the EU, it was for practical rather than political reasons. As the founder of a cheese-making company, my experience exporting outside the EU had taught me that leaving the single market would lead to increased costs for my business and countless problems with bureaucracy.
News of the referendum result came as a shock, but I was heartened by subsequent promises of a “smooth transition”. Maybe if we had stayed in the single market, the transition really would have been seamless. I resolved to make the best of a bad situation. I had the funds and a plan to build a new fulfillment warehouse for my Cheshire Cheese Company brand. We have hopefully created a multilingual version of our website for e-commerce sales and increased our marketing, providing some wholesale distribution in the EU.
The 2019 nomination of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and the subsequent landslide election at the end of that year gave up any chance of a sensible Democratic outcome for a Brexit deal. Brexit has become a matter of tax avoidance for those who stand to lose the most from EU transparency regulations. The aim of a hard Brexit was to remove any authority and leverage the EU might retain, including the UK’s membership of the single market. The government shows no sign of acknowledging the hardship this has caused small business owners; in the recent budget, Brexit was barely mentioned.
The disastrous turn for meat and dairy producers came in October 2020, when Johnson used the whip and his majority to push through an amendment to the Farm Bill. Food standards protections enshrined in the Farm Bill by the House of Lords were defeated. Johnson needed to be able to lower food standards to accommodate an expected US trade deal with a second-term Donald Trump. Until now, the UK was expected to align its food standards with those of the EU and provide UK producers with the smooth transition we were promised.
Before the end of the transition period, we knew that our wholesale shipments to the EU would need additional checks. We were aware of the requirement for a veterinarian verified Export Health Certificate (EHC) for each bulk order, and the associated cost of £180 each time.
But what we weren’t prepared or warned about was the lack of an exemption for consumer orders to this regulation, meaning that even a single slice of cheese sent to an EU customer would be also liable to tax.
During the first week of January 2021, several parcels sent via DHL to consumers in France, Germany and Italy were returned. Our couriers could not provide any explanation, but suggested it was a starting problem. Further inquiries and failed attempts to place orders on the website caused us to discontinue our sales to EU consumers. Before Brexit, our average e-commerce order was 1.5kg of cheese, priced around £35 including delivery. But to achieve this we now had to absorb £180 of extra export costs on every order, no matter how small.
Most countries include an allowance for food to be imported for personal consumption, so did UK negotiators miss this clause? An exemption for 20 kg of fish has been included, with companies able to send this quantity to EU consumers without any export charges. European commissioners told me that this exemption on fish had been added to the agreement by the British government, which the government denies.
Over the course of 12 months we lost around £250,000 in sales. After extensive media coverage, I was treated to a meeting with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Agriculture Minister Victoria Prentis. Their recommendation was to consider opening a hub in the EU or focus on emerging markets. Neither is affordable or feasible for a small business.
In the summer of 2021, our wholesale exports to our distributors ended. The cost of sending a shipment has become commercially unviable. The cost of shipping an average bulk order of around 2.5 tonnes has fallen from £400 to £1,200 in the space of three months and we could not absorb the time and expense of bureaucracy and paperwork. We found ourselves, like other small businesses, trapped on UK islands and facing increasing competition as small businesses like ours were forced to target domestic customers, no longer able to afford to ship to the EU. Agreements with new emerging markets favor big business and Britain has lost access to the EU single market.
We were lucky enough to find a solution: our company was recently taken over by Britain’s largest Cheshire cheese maker. The third generation family business took a majority stake in our business and provided us with security, growth and most importantly a gateway to the EU through their Dutch hub.
The cost and complexity of shipping, along with navigating bureaucracy due to each EU country interpreting the Brexit deal differently, makes it incredibly difficult for small businesses to export to the EU. Small businesses in the UK contribute 45% of annual turnover, but we have been the victims of every trade deal that has been negotiated. No consideration was given to our contribution to the economy or any support to gain a convenient route to export markets. The period since Brexit has been devastating for us, destroying any plans we had for a great future in Europe, the one we were promised.
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