when I voted to remain part of the EU it was for practical rather than political reasons. As the founder of a dairy business, my experience exporting outside the EU had taught me that leaving the single market would lead to higher costs for my business and countless red tape.
The news of the referendum result came as a shock, but I found comfort in the subsequent promises of a “seamless transition”. Maybe if we had stayed in the single market, the transition would have really been seamless. I decided to make the best of a bad situation. I had the funds and a plan to build a new logistics warehouse for my Cheshire Cheese Company brand. We optimistically built a multilingual version of our website for e-commerce sales and increased our marketing, securing wholesale distribution in the EU.
The 2019 appointment of Boris Johnson as prime minister and subsequent landslide elections later that year threw away any chance of a reasonable democratic outcome for a Brexit deal. Brexit has become tax evasion for those who would have lost the most to EU transparency regulations. The goal of a hard Brexit was to remove all authority and leverage the EU could retain, including the UK joining the single market. The government shows no sign of acknowledging the hardship this has caused for small business owners; in the recent budget, there was hardly any mention of Brexit.
The disastrous turning point for meat and dairy producers came in October 2020, when Johnson used the whip and his majority to force an amendment to the agriculture bill. Food standard protections inserted into the Agriculture Bill by the House of Lords were rejected. Johnson needed to be able to lower food standards to accommodate an expected US trade deal with a second-term Donald Trump. Until then, 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 bulk shipments to the EU would need further scrutiny. We were aware of the need for a veterinary verified Export Health Certificate (EHC) for every bulk order and the associated cost of £180 each time.
But what we weren’t prepared for, or warned about, was the lack of exemption for consumer orders to this regulation, meaning that even a single wedge of cheese sent to an EU customer would be subject to a charge.
In the first week of January 2021, multiple parcels sent via DHL to consumers in France, Germany and Italy were returned. Our couriers were unable to offer an explanation but did suggest it was a teething problem. Further investigation and failed attempts to place orders on the website resulted in us abandoning our consumer sales in the EU. Our average pre-Brexit e-commerce order was 1.5kg of cheese, priced at around £35 including delivery. But to fulfill this, we now had to absorb £180 in extra export costs for every order, no matter how small.
Most countries include an allowance for the import of food for personal consumption, so did the UK negotiators miss this clause? An exemption for 20kg of fish has been included, with companies able to send this amount to consumers in the EU without any export tax. I have been told by the European Commissioners that this fish exemption has been added to the deal by the UK Government, which the Government denies.
Over the course of 12 months, we lost around £250,000 in sales. After extensive media coverage, I was granted 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. None of these are affordable or feasible for a small business.
By the summer of 2021, our bulk exports to our distributors have ended. The cost of sending a shipment has become commercially unviable. The shipping cost of an average bulk order of around 2.5 tonnes went from £400 to £1,200 in the space of three months and we couldn’t absorb the time and expense of bureaucracy and paperwork. We found ourselves, like other small businesses, trapped in the UK islands and facing increasing competition as small businesses like ours were forced to target domestic customers, as we could no longer afford to ship to the EU. Deals with new emerging markets are geared towards big business and Britain has lost access to the EU’s single market.
We were lucky enough to find a solution: our company was recently taken over by the largest British cheese producer Cheshire. The third generation family business has taken a majority stake in our business and has provided us with security, growth and most importantly a back door to the EU via their Dutch hub.
The cost and complexity of shipping, coupled with navigating the red tape 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, yet we have been the victim of every trade deal that has been negotiated. No consideration has been given for our contribution to the economy or any support in gaining a practical path to export markets. The post-Brexit period has been devastating for us, destroying all plans we had for any great future in Europe that we were promised.