Jim Duffy: Brexit nerves are jangling in EU as much as Britain

Small businesses on both sides of the Channel are praying for a positive outcome from Brexit, says Duffy. Picture: contributed.Small businesses on both sides of the Channel are praying for a positive outcome from Brexit, says Duffy. Picture: contributed.
Small businesses on both sides of the Channel are praying for a positive outcome from Brexit, says Duffy. Picture: contributed.
Media coverage could make one think that Brexit is a UK-only problem. My favourite political commentary radio station is LBC. I wake up to Nick Ferrari making Boris Johnson squirm in his boots. As the day goes on, I have James O’Brien batter Jacob Rees-Mogg. Then there’s the arch Brexiteer himself, Nigel Farage, in the evening. It is very much Brexit, Brexit, Brexit just now as the Tory prime ministerial candidates outline their plans. It is as if the UK is living in its own wee world, devoid of thought on other things. But, Brexit is ­hitting home on the continent, too.

Many businesses in Spain, France and Germany are hedging their bets. Issues that may have massive variable ups and downs around Brexit time are preventing investment and stoking fear. The advice for businesses on the continent is no ­better than it is in the UK. The UK Federation of Small Businesses published a report this week stating that Brexit is harming exactly that – small businesses. Uncertainly is sapping business confidence in the UK. Despite having had three years to prepare for whatever Brexit means, the October deadline is looming like a tax return that has omissions all over it. Places such as Spain and Italy share this sentiment.

Industries such as marble, which is exported all over the globe, have slowed, with big companies like Levantina laying off staff and cutting overtime hours. Winegrowers and merchants are unsure what will happen with huge stores of ­bottles waiting to be shipped. Estate agents, despite the usual upbeat messaging, are feeling the pinch. In short, businesses are being affected in towns and communities across Europe just as much as here.

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Putting this into perspective, the uncertainty in Europe is scaring expats back to the UK. The ‘what ifs’ are playing on ­people’s minds. This is, in turn, is leading to a large amount of properties hitting the market at once. There is an underlying feeling that people need to get out before the Brexit button is pressed and BoJo or Hunt do their worst. Will the Spanish authorities, for example, require expats to pay for more resident permits or visas? Will the UK Government recognise the rights of expats to immediately return with no barriers despite living abroad for years? The nerves do not end there.

Why on earth would one buy a property in the EU when, in four month’s time, these countries may not let buyers in the door? Or may put in place onerous taxes to ­buttress their own flagging local taxes? This fear is also, I would suggest, putting downward pressure on house prices in areas of the continent. Under normal circumstances one would say it is a buyers market as a deluge of properties are listed with a small number of buyers available. But almost no buyers are coming forward. It is the worst of both worlds just now for sellers abroad. Business is caught in the middle.

So while I keep up to date with LBC as it educates me on business, politics and life in the UK, there is another world on our doorstep that is just as nervous and in some cases despairing of Brexit and Brussels bureaucrats. It is not just about the deal that the next Conservative prime minister secures from Europe and how this will impact business, but how the UK will fair in its relationships abroad. It is a two-sided coin with many small businesses employing two to 250 people on both sides of the Channel hoping and praying for a positive outcome for all sides.

After all, Trump’s America is taking no ­prisoners when it comes to its own interests, China’s growth is slowing down, credit card debt is soaring, the stock markets look over-inflated and currencies are under threat from the crypto world. It makes sense to keep our businesses trading with our neighbours on both sides of the Channel as easily as possible.

Spare a thought for the French wine ­merchant who has been supplying you for decades at Tesco or your local restaurant. He is just as worried as his counterpart in the UK.

- Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special.