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Businesses unprepared for Brexit, but British residents unexpectedly calm
The Brexit news has come fast and furious over the last 24 hours, as the British parliament voted to reject the deal struck between UK prime minister Theresa May and the European Union. Politicians tweeted reactions, and the business community broke out in hives, but, according to figures from several Brussels communes, British residents have not applied for citizenship en masse as expected.
The federal government, currently a caretaker government, is preparing itself for a no-deal Brexit, according to acting prime minister Charles Michel. “The ball is more than ever in Britain’s court,” Michel (MR) told news service Belga. “It’s now up to them to take responsibility for the consequences of their choice.”
Federal finance minister Alexander De Croo tweeted that the “Belgian federal government is preparing for all options. Belgian Customs will accelerate its efforts to assist our Belgian companies.”
As for the capital, Brussels Enterprises, Commerce and Industry (Beci) says that companies there are woefully unprepared for what is about to happen. “We really need to do everything we can to make our companies aware that Brexit is a serious economic threat,” the agency’s secretary-general, Jan De Brabanter, told Bruzz.
Beci represents and assists the self-employed and small to medium businesses in Brussels. The UK is Belgium’s fourth-biggest trading partner, and while Flanders will be hardest hit when it comes to export products, it’s Brussels where services such as trade relations and customs documents are concentrated. “The consequences should not be underestimated,” said De Brabanter.
That concern is echoed by acting federal labour minister Kris Peeters (CD&V), who recently reported that nearly 4,000 jobs in Brussels are at risk if Europe is looking at a hard Brexit. These would mostly be in administration but also in legal and accounting consulting services.
De Brabanter is also worried about small businesses, which are by and large taking a wait-and-see approach. They will soon be confronted with customs tariffs, inspections and trade barriers, for which they will not be prepared. Goods, he points out, cannot be loaded or unloaded without a customs declaration.
“Too few firms are taken the necessary steps,” he says. “Because of the political ambiguity of Brexit, they think it’s not going to happen fast. But we need to plan for a worst-case-scenario and prepare them for it because these are very real problems. We should be under no illusions.”
Only 10% going Belgian
And in other Brexit news, fewer British citizens in Belgium are applying for citizenship than was previously thought. While inquiries from Brits increased in the months following the referendum, fewer have followed through than expected.
According to the four Brussels municipalities that are home to the most British citizens – Brussels City, Ixelles, Etterbeek and Uccle – only 10% of British residents have applied for nationality since the referendum vote. And while there is a clear pique in 2017 figures, they dropped again in 2018.
The largest number can be seen in Ixelles in 2017, when nearly 70 people requested nationality. In Brussels-City, the figure also exceeded 60. In 2018, those numbers had dropped to 39 and 32 respectively.
According to Ghent political scientist Hendrik Vos, this is because negotiations have been so slow. “Many people are realising that not everything is going to happen so abruptly,” he told Bruzz. “They are keeping a watchful eye, but they realise that there will never be a time when the procedure will become impossible.” It’s only the “most worried” who have already requested citizenship, he said.
Photo: Frisien Vervaeke/BELGA