A dozen mild-mannered small business owners pop up on my screen from sectors ranging from chemicals, to financial services, to aerospace, catering and small gift box providers.
Having been shown the data from a British Chambers of Commerce survey of the impact of Brexit’s first year I asked to chat to some of them to find out more.
The business owners I spoke to have pretty much the same reflection on different aspects of the reality of one year of trading outside the Single Market and Customs Union. It’s clearly been challenging: “Frustrating. Scary. Huge drop in sales. Rendered uncompetitive in Europe.”
When I put to them what ministers have suggested privately – that some sections of British business need to be as prepared as the best-prepared bigger businesses, it got a little testy.
“I found it astounding that they are telling us to get used to it,” said Adrian Hanrahan, of Robinson’s chemicals, who is dealing with a new set of UK regulations entirely duplicating EU requirements.
A gift box distributor, Karen Lowen, says it’s cheaper for her to supply the US and Australia than Europe.
Meanwhile, a manufacturer of cutting edge green radiators says the expansion of his factory in Birmingham will now take place in Poland. One participant’s voice cracks as he tells me they are fighting to survive after a century-and-a-half in business.
A year on from the signing of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement – the real economic start of Brexit – we can start to see some of the changes in how Britain trades.
Despite the overwhelming influence of the lockdowns, and post-pandemic bounce back on all aspects of the economy, it is possible in the data and in the direct experience of hundreds of businesses, to see the impact of Brexit.
In broad terms, this is what the numbers show, so far:
Great Britain avoided the “reasonable worst case scenarios” of a stop to cross channel trade with massive social and economic challenges
There was a significant material hit to trade both ways, especially in the first two months
From those lows, UK exports recovered in later months, but not fully and some sectors such as clothing and food are still struggling
Total UK-EU trade (both ways) missed out on a global rebound in trade in 2021, and remained at the very low levels of the 2020 pandemic
Trade with the Republic of Ireland has slumped from Great Britain, boomed from Northern Ireland.
After a year of Brexit, the UK economy appears to be less open or less global than it was before.
The government’s official forecasters, the Office of Budget Responsibility, said the latest actual data were consistent with its forecasts from five years ago that the “trade intensity” of the UK economy could fall by 15% over a decade and a half.
The UK’s key export markets are less reliant on UK goods, and the UK is less reliant on foreign goods. This is at a time when trade elsewhere in the world boomed, recovering all the losses and more in the pandemic slump.
From Jan-October 2021 there was $627bn in two-way trade between the US and the European Union, up from $532bn in the same months in 2020, a bounce back of 18%.
China-EU two way trade in the first 10 months of 2021 was €558bn compared to €479bn in 2020, a bounce back of 17%.
The equivalent figure for the UK’s two way trade with the EU is 2% growth or £308bn versus £302bn.
In other words, UK-EU trade has in this first year of the post Brexit trade deal, failed to rebound unlike most of the rest of world trade.
In January, Charlie Samway, of Samways fish merchants in Bridport, Dorset, took the trouble to show me through 76 pages of documents now required alongside a visit and stamp from a vet with his consignments of exported monkfish and cuttlefish.
Whilst frustration at the red tape and risks to deliveries remain, he said: “Things have massively improved, from where we were there at the start of the year.
“So on the whole, we’re much happier than where we were, but I don’t think to say that things are perfect, I don’t think they’ll ever be, it is potentially something we’ve got to live with.”