02 February 2021, 09:37 AM
  • Could Brexit red tape cause fine European foods to become inaccessible in the UK? Darren Henaghan, managing director of London’s iconic Borough Market, examines the impact of Britain's EU exit on the speciality food sector
Darren Henaghan, Borough Market: “Weathering the Brexit storm”

One of our traders recently told me that the combination of Brexit and Covid-19 constitutes “a perfect storm”, with the end of the transition period having added even greater force to the ill winds that have been buffeting small businesses for much of the past year. Usually, even the worst storms blow out fairly quickly. This one has plenty more force left in it.

We should, of course, be thankful for small mercies: a no-deal Brexit would have stopped the Market in its tracks. But what was sold as a free-trade deal is nothing of the sort. There may be no tariffs to pay, but trade – particularly in food, where the regulations are necessarily onerous – is far from free. The increased costs of labelling, certification and inspection accrued by producers and transport companies are being passed on to our importers. Sluggish delivery timescales are also a problem, particularly given how important it is that everything arrives here in peak condition.

And yet importers have it relatively easy compared with those traders whose business model includes exporting to the EU: it’s upon them that the burden of seemingly endless paperwork falls. For a small business, the demands can be crippling. These aren’t teething problems either – this is how it’s going to be. We’re moving from a system in which tradition and trust could flourish, in which a unique cured meat from a farm in Calabria, made to a recipe passed down through the generations, could be sent to Borough Market with the same ease and lack of interference as the batch sent to the market in the nearest village. There was a glorious breadth and freedom to it all – a joy at how accessible other food cultures could be.

Now, we have a system based upon red tape, form filling and inspectors with clipboards, and the worry is that those traditional low-volume producers will choose not to participate in it, limiting themselves instead to headache-free trading within the world’s largest single market. Of course, the friendships built up over the years between our traders and their continental suppliers will count for something, but will it be enough? Only time will tell.

We also won’t know for a while what impact the points-based immigration rules will end up having on the character of Borough Market. Our traders employ staff from all over Europe, and their specialist knowledge and regional pride adds so much to the cosmopolitan colour of this place. It would be tragic if that were to change. And yet despite all this, we mustn’t be too gloomy. Not because Brexit will be delivering its elusive dividends any time soon, but because we believe wholeheartedly in our traders and their ability to adapt.

The businesses here may be small, but they’re owned and run by determined people who care deeply about what they do and won’t be blown off course. Borough Market has been here for centuries. It has survived wars, food shortages and seismic social shifts. It’ll see off this latest storm too.

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