Brexit Batters British Wine Trade

26 April 2021 –

Shipping wine to the UK is now a “bloody nightmare” and it’s only likely to get worse.

Is there a more disingenuous statement than “get Brexit done”?

Almost five years have passed since the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, but the hard work is just beginning. I hope and pray that the great British public will eventually come to their senses. Surely they’ll realize that frictionless trade with the world’s biggest economic bloc was actually quite a good idea.

The alternative is too horrific to even contemplate. After only four months of trading with our European neighbors as a “third country”, Britain is feeling immense pain. Exports to the EU plummeted in February; our fishing industry is collapsing; tensions are boiling over in Northern Ireland; manufacturers are moving jobs and prosperity away from the UK. And who can blame them, when just-in-time manufacturing has been so completely screwed by a cornucopia of Soviet-grade bureaucracy?

The UK/EU trade deal abolished tariffs on goods, but neglected to address financial services, or the harsh realities of a violent lurch into a new trading framework.

“A lot of the post-Brexit changes are happening under the British public’s noses,” says  Philip Cox, owner of Romanian winery Cramele Recas.

“There is a Ford factory near my winery in the city of Craiova. Since Brexit happened, Ford has been moving production and personnel away from the UK factory in Dagenham at an impressive rate. Great for the Romanian economy, but another example of the self-inflicted pain caused by this ridiculous project.”

From the outset, Cox has been a staunch critic of the Brexit madness. We’ve spoken several times over the past six months – I’m now on his Christmas card list. He remains incredulous that more European wineries aren’t vocalizing their criticisms of the new trading regulations.

“To be succinct – shipping wine to the UK has become a bloody nightmare,” exclaims Cox.

“Every order requires a mountain of paperwork: customs declarations, preferential origin certificates, importer labeling. Exporting has become expensive, time-wasting and cumbersome. The heightened administrative costs have forced me to ditch some of my smaller UK customers. Exporting relatively small volumes is no longer viable. The cost of shipping to the UK has risen by at least €400,000 per year.”

Post-Brexit logistics, says Cox, make Dante’s Inferno seem like a pleasant afternoon in a day spa. I attempted to interview a European shipping firm, but encountered an impenetrable wall of “no comment”. One Dutch-based company would share some information, strictly off the record.

“Prices have increased due to problems caused by Brexit. The market has changed considerably, the lack of return loads from the UK and lack of capacity allocated to the UK market has caused prices to increase,” said a representative from the company.

“Verbally, all the transporters tell us of long delays due to new customs and paperwork requirements. This is losing them time and thus money as they only earn money per trip rather than per day, so less trips mean less money,” adds Cox.

Border check chaos ahead

And yet, he insists that the situation could be far worse. As it stands today, UK customs and excise are foregoing extensive checks on goods entering the country. To do so would grind our island nation to a halt, argues Cox.

“God help us, when they instigate full customs checks in 2022,” he says.

“The UK border infrastructure is a joke – it simply cannot cope with the new levels of checks and bureaucratic procedures. This is why most of the European goods are being waved through. This would be a fantastic time to smuggle drugs and people into the UK.”

So why aren’t more European wineries sharing their disgruntlement? The larger companies are undoubtedly partly insulated due to favorable economies of scale. Equally, a growing firmament of boutique labels will probably disengage from the UK, as it becomes financially unworkable to export small volumes. Discreetly, several wineries have confirmed that they plan to do just that.

From their perspective, this island is no longer a good place to be. Fortunately, there are other markets to explore. Other fish to fry. The net upshot is higher prices and less choice for the British consumer. We could become a glorious nation of amorphous, mass-market brands.

“Our shipping charges have been altered. We used to be charged per case, which meant that we could ship tiny parcels from some growers. We are now charged per pallet and have a sliding economy of scale – this puts our smallest suppliers at a real disadvantage,” says Siobhán Astbury, buying director at Haynes Hanson & Clark. They’re a leading importer of niche brands. These businesses keep wine exciting. They don’t need this extra hassle.

Yet the reticence to share opinions goes deeper than stoicism. Brexit remains a highly sensitive and politically charged issue. The so-called healing process has not occurred – remain and leave voters are still bitterly divided. In that context, it’s understandable that wine producers don’t want to offend the sensibilities of their customers. The wine industry is notorious for refusing to pick a side.

However, the British press have no such qualms. Unless you’re a lefty liberal like me, you’d think Brexit had been an unmitigated triumph. The Guardian, Financial Times and a few outlying publications have documented the catastrophic damage caused by our succession from the EU, but the majority of the press have engaged in relentless breast beating about the benefits of standing alone. The EU’s folly with its vaccination programme has become theConservatives’ rallying cry for further disentanglement. The ultimate proof that we’re better off without this cabal of evil bureaucrats in Brussels.

Tell that to European wineries attempting to send vital samples to the UK. “Covid is a nightmare, and so is Brexit,” sighs Anne Malassagne, co-owner of Champagne brand AR Lenoble.

“It looks like sending a bottle of Champagne to the UK has become a severe challenge. Prior to 2021, we worked with the company Chronopost. However, they refuse to do deliveries for us, since they couldn’t find a deal with the UK after Brexit. Unbelievable.”

I suppose it could be worse. The British government has once again delayed the introduction of wine import certificates. This additional piece of bureaucracy was created to replace the VI-1 forms, which the EU currently uses to regulate the import of non-European wines. Unless things change in the interim, it will come into force in 2022.

“The introduction of the wine import certificates would be the final straw,” says Cox.

“It duplicates information already contained in other documents – invoice, customs declaration, etc. I’d have to complete a 200-page form and obtain 200 customs stamps.”

Cox is determined to stop that happening. He has taken a legal case to the Romanian court; under EU law, any regulation enacted must serve “a recognisable purpose”. He intends to argue that the import certificates serve no such purpose.

“I think this may be escalated to the  European Court of Justice. However, the expense involved would be considerable, which is why I need to collaborate with other producers to share expertise and legal costs. But thus far, few wineries are willing to travel with me. There appears to be an attitude that the British should be left to stew in their own mess.”

Still, let’s look on the bright side: Britain has restored its cherished national sovereignty. Or so I’m told. But do leave voters feel any more British?

Have their erstwhile miserable lives been turned around, now that we’re independent of the monstrous EU? An upsurge in patriotic fever may delight some, but it’s probably a weak substitute for manufacturing jobs, prosperity and growth. Or a wider choice of cheaper wines.

I suspect that, with time, the terrible truth will dawn. There was never an upside to leaving the EU. Our existing deal is mind-numbingly bad. Ongoing support for Brexit has become the last refuge of the imbecile. One day, the penny might drop.


Original Post By James Lawrence

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