I used to sell cheese to Europe.Brexit is bringing my business to the brink | Simon Sperrell

WWhen I voted to remain in the EU it was for practical rather than political reasons. As the founder of a cheese manufacturing business, my experience exporting outside the EU has taught me that leaving the single market would create cost increases and numerous bureaucratic issues for my business.

News of the referendum result was shocking, but I was relieved by the ensuing promise of a “seamless transition”. Maybe if we stayed in the single market, the transition would really be seamless. I am determined to make the most of bad situations. I have funds and plans to build a new distribution warehouse for my Cheshire Cheese Company brand. Optimistically we created a multilingual version of the website for e-commerce sales and increased marketing efforts securing some wholesale distribution in the EU.

The appointment of Boris Johnson as prime minister in 2019, followed by a landslide election at the end of that year, cast aside any chance of a reasonable democratic outcome to the Brexit deal. For those who stand to lose the most from EU transparency regulations, Brexit has turned into tax evasion. The aim of a hard Brexit is to remove all power and influence the EU may retain – including the UK’s membership of the single market. The government has shown no signs of acknowledging the difficulties this is causing for small business owners; Brexit was barely mentioned in the most recent budget.

A disastrous turning point for meat and dairy producers came in October 2020, when Johnson used his whip and his majority to force amendments to the farm bill. Food standards protections proposed by the House of Lords in the Farm Bill were defeated. Johnson needs to be able to lower food standards to accommodate the expected trade deal the US has with a second-term Donald Trump. Until then, the UK is expected to bring its food standards in line with the EU and provide UK producers with the smooth transition we have promised.

Until the end of the transition period, we are aware that our wholesale shipments to the EU will require additional checks. We understand that each wholesale order requires an Export Health Certificate (EHC) for veterinary inspection and an associated fee of £180 each.

But what we were not prepared for or warned about is that consumer orders are not exempt from this regulation, which means that even a slice of cheese sent to an EU customer will be charged.

During the first week of January 2021, multiple packages sent using DHL to consumers in France, Germany and Italy were returned. Our courier was unable to provide any explanation but said it was an initial issue. Further investigation and failed attempts to send a website order resulted in us abandoning our EU consumer sales. Our average pre-Brexit e-commerce order was 1.5kg of cheese for around £35 including delivery. But in order for this to happen, we now need to incur an additional export cost of £180 per order, no matter how small.

Most countries allow the import of food for personal consumption, so did UK negotiators miss this provision? This includes an exemption of 20kg of fish, which businesses can export to consumers in the EU without paying any export charges. The EU commissioner told me that this exemption for fish was added to the agreement by the UK government, which the government denies.

Over a 12-month period, we lost around £250,000 in sales. Following extensive media coverage, I was granted permission to meet with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Agriculture Secretary Victoria Prentis. Their advice is to consider opening a hub in the EU or focus on emerging markets. None of this is affordable or achievable for small businesses.

Our wholesale exports to dealers have ended by summer 2021. The cost of sending the goods becomes commercially unviable.Shipping costs for an average wholesale order of around 2.5 tonnes jumped from £400 to £1,200 in three months We cannot afford the time and expense of bureaucracy and paperwork. We found ourselves stranded on the British Isles, among other small businesses, facing increasing competition as small businesses like ours were forced to target domestic customers and could no longer afford to ship to the EU. Deals with emerging markets are skewed in favor of big business, and the UK has lost access to the EU’s single market.

We were lucky to find a solution: our company was recently acquired by the UK’s largest Cheshire cheese maker. The third generation family business holds a majority stake in our business and provides us with security, growth and – most importantly – a gateway back to the EU through their Dutch hub.

The cost and complexity of shipping, as well as navigating bureaucracy due to different interpretations of the Brexit deal in each EU country, make it difficult for small businesses to export to the EU. Small businesses in the UK contribute 45% of their annual turnover, yet we are victims of every trade deal negotiated. There is no consideration of our contribution to the economy or any support for practical access to export markets. The period since Brexit has been devastating for us, destroying all our plans for any good future in Europe that we were promised.

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