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Post-Brexit trade between UK & Belgium: From one transition to another?
Following the eleventh-hour deal on the UK’s future trading relationship with the European Union, British companies in Belgium are breathing a collective sigh of relief while facing an onslaught of post-Brexit red tape.
British grocery store Stonemanor delivers up to 20,000 food products and other items from its Norfolk warehouse in the UK. “We are working hard to get trucks in as normal and the product range fairly unaltered, but some might take longer because there is more paperwork involved,” said manager Ryan Pearce.
The community retailer has been serving expats – and increasingly Belgians - a taste of Britain since 1982 from its flagship store in Everberg (pictured, above) on the outskirts of Brussels and a second outlet in Rhode-Saint-Genèse. As well as fresh food and household goods, it sells books, magazines, games and decor.
While the new agreement allows for tariff-free trading, Stonemanor is discovering that, “it’s a bit of a minefield to get through all the legislation and legal jargon. We have to rely on basic interpretation and help from our import and export companies,” said Pearce.
The store unwittingly found itself on the “back foot” when UK ports experienced a pre-Christmas gridlock due to fears of Brexit on top of Covid-19 restrictions. “We had the added frustration of our biggest delivery of the year – a truck filled with orders of fresh meat and poultry – not making it in time for Christmas. That took our attention away from Brexit for a week,” he added.
While the company had stockpiled goods in the lead up to the end of the transition period on 31 December – running three full trucks a week instead of its usual two – shelves were being emptied as fast as they were being refilled. But the store squeezed in two truck deliveries between Christmas and New Year to guarantee sufficient stock for the beginning of the new trade regime.
Recent headlines about the export ban on British bangers has resulted in worried customers seeking reassurance from Stonemanor about their future sausage supplies. “The answer is we don’t know yet. We have to look at every single product and its ingredients, which takes time. Sausages with X amount of herbs could be classified differently, for example,” said Pearce.
He pointed out that, “one pallet could hold up to 100 different products and among those products you could have up to 30 different commodity codes that all need to be identified.”
Nevertheless, his message to customers was: “Be patient, we’re working as fast as we can to bring the new normal as close to the old normal.” As for the fear of British products costing more, “we can’t put a number on it until we start sending trucks and see how long they are going to take. We are dealing with fresh produce here,” said Pearce.
British Chamber helping members navigate their way through the process
The usual lull in cross-Channel freight at the beginning of January has afforded many British companies in Belgium some breathing space before tackling the full implications of post-Brexit trade. Matt Hinde, co-chair of the UK-EU relations committee of the British Chamber of Commerce EU and Belgium, told the Bulletin that the chamber’s members were broadly "positive” about the new agreement. “No deal would have been a very bad outcome even if the new deal involves significant changes. People are going to have to spend quite a lot of time making those changes,” he added.
These concern the longer-term issue of regulations around tariff-free barriers, creating a level of uncertainty that no business welcomed. Said Hinde: “The consequences of the deal is that there’s a lot of information to gather and to work through. The free trade agreement focuses on goods, but chemicals, for example, is a good not really governed by the agreement. What happens with that sector?”
Admitting it was difficult to be specific at this early stage in the process, he confirmed that it was “always going to be an exceptionally busy period”, but that the next meeting of the relations committee would “try to examine all the implications to ensure that it was helping its membership navigate their way through the long process”.
As an energy sector expert, Hinde said that there was little disruption in the internal energy market as it was mutually beneficial to the UK and Belgium to ensure a smooth transition. “Everyone was prepared and trading in electricity and gas goes one. This is now outside of the single market so it’s slightly less efficient.
“The main point is that from an energy sector perspective the deal gives us the ability to build back a new relationship, and in some ways the roadmap for the new relationship is perhaps more explicit in the energy sector compared to others. The importance is the ability to cooperate in the future, particularly in the North Sea, where we are looking at wide-scale infrastructure between lots of different countries,” he said.
Photos: Getty Images © Narvikk; Stonemanor store, Everberg