by Bev Haigh-Jones

The personal story for this issue comes from Howard – Cornwall for Europe’s own chairman – and is told in his own words.

I suppose that from a very young age I wanted to be a farmer and grow food. In 1984, aged 28 and with a few, not very good quality acres and very little capital, I started a market garden enterprise. I grew a wide range of fruit and vegetable crops for a pick your own market, which at that time was reasonable. However, earning a living from this alone was difficult and continually one needed to diversify and innovate, although I was always very careful that the diversification would not take me away from my main aim of growing food.

In 1995 I opened a pop up, Christmas tree retail site and very quickly realised that customers wanted high quality, purpose grown trees, that were not being grown in the UK so began to import trees from Danish growers. The new single market meant that this was as easy as buying from your neighbour. No customs, no bureaucracy, just a willing buyer and seller.

By 2004 I had sold the farm, having given up noble notions of growing food, and moved to Cornwall to convert our newly acquired farm buildings for holiday use. I was still heavily involved in Christmas trees however – retailing, growing and wholesaling. I became aware of the needs of tree sellers in this new market and was able to set up a company designing, manufacturing and selling specific machinery used in the harvesting and sale of Christmas trees. I had these manufactured by small engineering companies here in the UK. This trade was never ever going to turn me into Richard Branson but just help make up a living. The same issues in retailing were being faced Europe-wide, so I was able to sell machines to my friends and acquaintances in Ireland, Denmark, France and Germany. I suppose this made me an exporter, but it certainly was not glamorous, neither did it mean that I achieved any more than earning a living.

Machines that cut wood are regulated by a series of safety standards and the only requirement for selling within the EU is that products must carry an CE sticker to declare that they conform.

Within the EU single market a business can self-certify that their goods meet the relevant standards, they just need to produce a technical brochure demonstrating conformity then stick on a CE sticker! This worked because as EU businesses we were under the jurisdiction of the European courts and in disputes were answerable to the same body.

Now that we are outside the EU, self-certification by UK companies is not possible. One must appoint a third party to certify that goods meet safety standards and on my tiny scale, this is totally unviable. Having left the EU this part of my business is over! I cannot send machines out of the UK. This loss will not register on government statistics, but these hidden barriers to trade will continue to affect the trade status of the UK, as well as the income of many small entrepreneurs who were becoming used to having an extra market of 500 million people on the doorstep, with whom they could easily trade. I am still able to import Christmas trees, thanks to Johnson’s last minute trade deal, but bureaucracy has increased dramatically adding to costs and making it a far less attractive proposition. Phytosanitary certificates, plus additional complications over the VAT treatment and doubt over waiting times at the docks, which will lead to increased transport costs, will suppress this.

So many people over the last 40 years have, like myself, found themselves trading within the EU almost by accident and benefited in ways far beyond financial. Sadly barriers created by leaving will, in spite of our electronic connectivity, severely put the brakes on international cooperation and understanding.

This month, rather than a second Brexit disaster we have decided to opt for something more positive with some heart-warming anecdotes relating to our European friends. These have been kindly provided by Tony, who has spent a great deal of time in Greece.

“The very first time I set out to explore the islands of Greece, I was queuing on the quayside at Piraeus waiting to board a ferry to Crete. It was early evening, freezing cold and raining. Just to be polite, I nodded to the Greek guy standing next to me and asked him where he was from. He ran a hand over his face, flicked the water at the ground and put an arm around my shoulders. Very seriously, he looked me in the eyes and slowly said, ‘My brother, like you, I am from planet Earth.’ Then he nudged me and broke into a smokey laugh, then he nudged me again and soon we both had tears running down our faces, laughing like fools in the steady downpour. I have never forgotten that crazy, happy man. “

“On my first ever visit to Greece, I was with a party of eight of my friends. Our carousing on the patio took us well into the night but when I went to pay, the restaurant had closed. I looked through the glass door and caught the eye of the proprietor. He was at the till. I waved some notes for him to see but he just shook his head, ‘Too late. Pay tomorrow. I have finished with the money.’ This trust in absolute strangers has become familiar over the years – but that first time was unforgettably reassuring.”

“One late evening after a whole day of walking with my wife Sandy, we dropped into a couple of chairs outside a small kafeneion in the Hora on the island of Kythira. At the next table we watched two men in animated conversation. After some minutes, one of the men looked over at us and asked, ‘You want something?’
‘I’d love a Raki, please and a Fanta for my wife.’
He got up and returned with Sandy’s drink and an old Cinzano bottle full of raki which he placed between us on our table. The men continued with their discussion. After I’d drained a couple of shots from my glass, I excused myself and asked how much I owed. ‘How do I know? I’m not open yet.’” “One early evening during my mad summer stint of working in a Greek kitchen, a honeymoon couple returned who’d spent a small fortune the previous evening and asked Theo if it was OK to sit at the same table outside but not to eat, just for a couple of lemonades. Unusually, Theo was delighted and even served them himself. When they came to settle their bill, he smiled and said, ‘Please, no. Thank you but this time it’s with me. You pay last night.’ “