Selling to Europe from Sussex

Government advertisement 'Get ready for Brexit' at a street corner.
Instead of ‘Getting ready for Brexit’, many smaller businesses have quietly upped and left.
Photo credit: duncan, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

After two decades I closed my language business in Sussex at the end of 2020. I’m not alone. Buried amid the noise and statistics of Brexit is the bare fact that many small businesses have quietly upped and left.

Brighton Hove & Sussex Grammar School, now BHASVIC, fired my passion for languages in the 1970s. At that fabulous state school I was lucky enough to have one-to-one tuition much of the time. Then followed a degree at Cambridge and spells in business and the City. Above all, the burgeoning opportunities presented by the European Single Market in the 1990s made setting up an international business a sound choice.

There could scarcely have been a better place than Sussex to launch a business serving customers in mainland Europe. Based in Lewes, I could revel in the multicultural pull of Brighton, network with like-minded business owners, benefit from an enterprise-friendly economy and easily get to airports and the Channel Tunnel.

A typical day’s work might involve translating online in Lewes or interpreting at a customer site, for example in Rotterdam, literally just a few hours’ drive away. Customers in mainland Europe were keen to work with UK-based suppliers. A phenomenon known as ‘native language attrition’ can make language providers living outside their own country less attractive, as they lose daily contact with their native language. Given the pace of change of English and the speed at which business terminology evolves, that can be problematic.

Brexit was bound to jeopardise a Europe-facing business model. Despite the government’s assurances that the UK would retain full trading access to the EU, it was clear ministers had little clue about the Single Market. And they certainly underestimated how fiercely the EU27 would defend its integrity.

The UK government prioritised ‘sovereignty’ over economics. Large firms read the runes and restructured, hiring staff in overseas markets and creating new legal entities to continue trading across the new divide. EasyJet, for example, split into British and Austrian businesses as far back as 2017. Small firms had neither the assets nor the legal scope to follow suit.

The UK government’s 2020 media campaigns telling businesses to prepare for departure from the Single Market and Customs Union belied the fact that even ministers had no knowledge of future terms of trade.

When it finally landed, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement included provisions on goods but few on services. Selling to the EU from Sussex had just got infinitely more difficult, with new non-tariff barriers such as limits on stays in the Schengen area, a ban on paid work abroad and administrative hurdles in each individual market, not to mention the UK’s dented international reputation.

The tragedy of the hard Brexit pursued by the UK is that so many Europe-focused businesses have become instantly unviable, whether they’re selling Scottish langoustines to France, Welsh lamb to Germany or language services to the Netherlands. The Brexit impacts that are being disingenuously described as teething troubles are actually structural. Away from the headlines, small firms will not be hiring, will not be opening up new markets and will not be paying UK taxes.

My business now operates out of Gibraltar, a territory dragged out of the EU despite a 96% Remain vote. With around 14,000 people crossing the border daily to work it was always clear that Gibraltar would need a differentiated settlement with the EU to stay viable.

While retaining British sovereignty – not to mention an open trading environment, sterling and a legal system based on English common law – the Gibraltar government has ambitious plans to associate with the Schengen area, with its border being overseen by Frontex, the EU border agency. It may also seek a bespoke customs deal with the EU’s Customs Union. The arrangements will need to be enshrined in a UK–EU treaty over the next six months. It’s remarkable that the UK government has acquiesced in this closer EU relationship for Gibraltar, but then Northern Ireland too has been left half in the EU. Brexit was clearly above all an English project.

If the Gibraltar government succeeds in its ambition, the trading environment for EU-facing firms will be significantly better than in the UK – a demonstration that true sovereignty does not equate to economic isolation.

So, for the foreseeable future my links with Sussex will be personal rather than business. But I’m confident that its openness and vibrancy will again make Sussex a great location from which to trade with Europe. The current ideologically driven government will not last forever. The UK’s deal with the EU may be thin, and could yet crumble, but it potentially provides a basis on which to rebuild a closer relationship. A future government could improve the terms of trade, enter a customs union, restore the recognition of qualifications and promote cross-border services.

Rejoining the EU may be off the agenda for a generation, but there is much to fight for in the meantime.

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