WWhen I voted to remain in the EU, my reasons were more practical than political. As the founder of a cheese-making company, my experience of exporting outside the EU had taught me that leaving the single market would bring my business increased costs and countless bureaucratic problems.
News of the referendum result came as a shock, but I consoled myself with subsequent promises of a “seamless transition.” Perhaps the transition really would have been seamless if we had stayed in the single market. I decided to make the best of a bad situation. I had the funds and a plan to build a new fulfillment warehouse for mine Cheshire Cheese Company Brand. We’ve been optimistic about creating a multilingual version of our website for e-commerce sales and expanding our marketing, which has secured us some wholesale distribution in the EU.
The appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in 2019 and the subsequent landslide election at the end of the year eliminated any chance of a reasonable democratic outcome for a Brexit deal. Brexit was about tax evasion for those who would lose the most EU transparency rules. The goal of a hard Brexit was to remove any powers and leverage the EU might retain – including the UK’s membership of the single market. The government shows no sign of acknowledging the difficulties this has caused for small business owners; in the most recent budget, Brexit was barely mentioned.
The catastrophic tipping point for meat and dairy producers came in October 2020 when Johnson used the stick and his majority to force a change in the law agriculture bill. The protection of food standards introduced into the Farm Bill by the House of Lords was deselected. Johnson needed to be able to reduce food standards to facilitate an expected US trade deal with a second-term Donald Trump. Up until this point, there was an expectation that the UK would align its food standards with the EU and allow British producers the smooth transition we were promised.
Before the end of the transition period, we knew that our wholesale deliveries to the EU required additional controls. We were aware of the veterinary regulations Export health certificate (EHC) for each wholesale order and associated costs of £180 each.
However, what we were not prepared for or warned about was the lack of an exemption for consumer orders from this rule, so even a single slice of cheese sent to an EU customer would also be subject to a charge.
In the first week of January 2021, several packages sent with DHL to consumers in France, Germany and Italy were returned. Our couriers were unable to provide an explanation but suggested it was a childhood illness. Further investigation and failed attempts to ship website orders prompted us to discontinue our EU consumer sales. Our average ecommerce order before Brexit was 1.5kg of cheese priced at around £35 including delivery. But in order to fulfill this we were now expected to cover an additional £180 in export costs for every order, no matter how small.
Most countries provide an exemption limit for the import of food for personal consumption. So did the UK negotiators overlook this clause? An exemption for 20 kg of fish has been included, allowing companies to send this amount to consumers in the EU with no export fees. I have been told by EU Commissioners that this fish exemption was included in the agreement by the UK Government, which the Government denies.
Over the course of 12 months we’ve lost an estimated £250,000 in sales. After extensive media coverage, I was granted a meeting with the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Agriculture Minister Victoria Prentis. Their recommendation was to consider opening a hub in the EU or to focus on emerging markets. None of these are affordable or attainable for a small business.
In summer 2021 our wholesale exports to our distributors ended. The cost of sending a shipment became economically unviable. The cost of shipping an average wholesale order of around 2.5 tonnes went from £400 to £1,200 in three months and we could not absorb the time and expense of bureaucracy and paperwork. We, like other small businesses, found ourselves trapped in the UK islands and faced increasing competition as small businesses like ours were forced to target domestic customers. can no longer afford shipping to the EU. Deals with new emerging markets are geared towards large companies and the UK had lost access to the EU single market.
We were fortunate to have found a solution: our company was recently acquired by the UK’s largest Cheshire cheese producer. The third generation family business has taken a majority stake in our business, giving us security, growth and most importantly a gateway back to the EU via its Dutch hub.
The cost and complexity of shipping, as well as navigating the bureaucracy that results from each country in the EU interpreting the Brexit deal differently, make it incredibly difficult for small businesses to export to the EU. Small businesses in the UK account for 45% of annual sales, yet we have been victims of every trade deal negotiated. Our contribution to the economy or any support to find a practical route to export markets was not taken into account. The time since Brexit has been devastating for us and destroyed any plans we had for a great future Europeone that was promised to us.