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Cheesed off: Brexit blues wipe out UK cheesemaker’s European business

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In the heart of England”s Peak District, famous Derbyshire Stilton is made using traditions passed on through the generations.

The Hartington Creamery has revived the practice over the past decade, producing cheese from 200 dairy cows at Pikehall Farm.

Business grew to the extent that the company began exporting successfully to Europe, where its products were becoming increasingly popular.

That was, until Brexit.

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A fresh, perishable product, its cheese has fallen victim to the extra paperwork, costs and confusion that have hit many a British exporter to the continent since the UK left the EU’s trading unit in January.

On Thursday (September 16), UK retail chain Marks & Spencer said it was closing over half of its French stores due to food supply problems caused by Brexit.

“You have the implications of it going out of date, the ‘use by’ date, and then it goes off, then you’re throwing loads of cheese away which obviously is heartbreaking –- because obviously all your work is just gone,” says dairy farmer Abigail Spurrell.

“We were promised the frictionless deal, that trade would continue exactly as it had before, and it was all complete and utter lies because what we’re seeing is the total and utter opposite of that,” says Abigail’s father, Hartington’s director Simon Spurrell.

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The company’s European business, he adds, has been “completely and utterly wiped out”. The new costs — at £180 (€210) per certificate, per destination — are unaffordable.

It received advice to fall back on the wholesale market, but that too is economically impossible, he says, with costs rising from £300 (€351) per consignment to £1,500 (€1,756).

Add to that the paperwork involved in exporting into the EU’s single market: five individuals taking three to four hours to deal with every transaction.

“Our partners in Europe have said ‘I’m sorry you’re just too difficult to deal with’, and they’ve abandoned us,” Spurrell says.

The loss of business means a quarter of the company’s turnover has evaporated since January 1.

Early in the new year, as many exporters struggled with the new demands, the British government advised Hartington to look into opening up an operation based on the continent.

“They’re on our doorstep, they are already a market we know. We did have three distributors in Europe and that was naturally going to be our growth,” the director says, adding that there were positive approaches from Holland, France, Germany and Poland to set up there.

However, the company decided it was too expensive — and crucially, the government could not provide adequate assurances that it was a safe option.

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“As a small business, we can’t act upon something that our own government can’t offer any assurances for,” Simon Spurrell says. “They couldn’t guarantee that there wouldn’t be a trade war in the future. They blamed everything on the EU, and said that it was them that was the problem and not the UK government.

“In fact, we know that it’s in equal measures, really, there is a 50-50 split between the two of them, and they are not willing to compromise in any way, shape or form.”

After the UK and the EU struck a last-minute free trade agreement just before Christmas, avoiding tariffs and quotas, Boris Johnson hailed “a deal which will if anything should allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends”.

However, Brussels had long warned that the UK’s express decision to leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union would bring added costs and red tape., and the British government’s website details the many changes for exporters and importers.

The UK government has said support and advice is available for businesses experiencing problems. And that it’s vital that traders ensure their exports have the correct paperwork to comply with new animal product checks when they cross the EU border.

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View Luke Hanrahan’s report from Derbyshire in the video player above.

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