It has been seven weeks since the UK completed its departure from the European Union and Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit trade deal came into effect.
At that time, British exporters have struggled with new trade barriers.
In some cases, orders have been slowed down by paperwork; fresh produce has failed to reach its destination in time, forcing it to be destroyed.
All of this is a direct result of the UK’s policy decision to leave the EU’s single market and customs union.
Realities of Brexit
For companies who built their businesses on unfettered access to that market, these barriers — put up virtually overnight and with a little warning — have had big consequences.
And while it could be argued that these companies had years to prepare for Brexit, the post-Brexit trade deal was only agreed on December 24 and came into force on January 1.
Under these circumstances, people expect a government to be doing everything in its power to help struggling businesses.
However, critics fear that the Johnson administration has buried its head in the sand: The Prime Minister has called the difficulties no more than “teething problems.”
“Only some of the issues we see at present could be legitimately described as ‘teething problems,'” says Adam Marshall, director of the British Chambers of Commerce.
“Yes, some firms are facing adjustment … But others are seeing their entire business model up-ended, and their ability to trade successfully undermined,” he adds.
Last weekend, Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said that he understood some companies were struggling due to the sudden change.
But that “if you take a 10-year view … the growth opportunities in the future are going to come from emerging and developing economies around the world,” says Raab.
Which isn’t much comfort for businesses that export fresh produce, such as Scotland’s fishing industry.
“For many businesses, trading with the EU now feels like a high-risk, long-odds gamble,” says James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, a lobby group.
“The trading system is more costly, complex, slower, and unreliable. For our European customers who need guarantees of products like salmon arriving at a certain time, reliability is everything.”
Far from being teething problems, the slower, less reliable trading systems Withers describes are the consequence of new paperwork on things like customs, proof of a product’s origin, and sanitary standards.
In the case of companies that import parts from Europe before exporting a finished product, the correct paperwork is needed at every stage of the supply chain, leaving British exporters at the mercy of European firms, which are also getting their heads around the complex new processes.
“Even though the impact of FTAs is usually analyzed over a period of time, for a government minister to say we should look at the impact of this deal in 10 years when people are losing jobs and money is a bit tone-deaf, especially when you consider that it was down to the government to provide guidance to allow businesses to prepare,” says Anna Jerzewska, founder of Trade and Borders, a consultancy which assists exporters and importers across Europe.
If the current situation sounds dire, some believe it will get worse. Withers points out that controls on EU food imports are due to start in April and that stockpiles are being depleted. And when Europe’s hospitality businesses emerge from lockdown, demand for food and drink will pick up. “If we can’t supply them, our competitors will.”