Post-Brexit bureaucracy bites British store in Brussels

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By Meabh McMahon
Post Brexit bureaucracy bites British store in Brussels
Post Brexit bureaucracy bites British store in Brussels   -  Copyright  Meabh McMahon

If you were born and raised in the UK or Ireland, but are now based in Brussels, doing your food shop at the family run supermarket Stonemanor is like a trip down memory lane. From custard creams to maple syrup, it transports you right back to your kitchen table back home.

So when Stonemanor took to Facebook last week to tell their customers that they had to close their doors for a few days due to empty shelves, the news caused an uproar among British expats in Brussels as well as Belgians who had grown to love their products since the store was founded in 1982.

Normally, at this time of year, the shelves would be bursting with Easter eggs, but since the EU-UK transitional agreement ended in December, getting goods into Belgium has got complicated.

"There are 250 different product categories that will require 250 different types of paperwork that will need to be submitted to the customs,", store manager Ryan Pearce tells Euronews in front of a stack of empty shelves. The shop, that stocks everything from baked beans to British beds is full of empty fridges, even though the biggest attraction for regulars are normally the chilled goods like milk, butter and cheese.

Support is at hand in the form of webinars organised by the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels but for Ryan Pearce, whose grandfather founded the store decades ago, it is too little too late. He has already turned to Ireland for help. As otherwise, he can't afford to keep his shop open and staffed.

Empty shelves at the family run supermarket, StonemanorEuronews

"Ireland is part of the EU so we can source goods from there without having a hard border and there are no customs exports paperwork," says Pearce. "On Monday we got Irish sausages and bacon – our first delivery from a butcher in Ireland," he adds.

And maybe not the last. Polish trade expert Dr Anna Jerzewska who advises the British government on trade, says things will get easier with time for companies like Stonemanor, but the checks and therefore costs are here to stay. Supply chains could shift, she believes so that the costs don't get picked up by the consumers.

"If you are an EU client or company and you are used to purchasing goods from the UK and all of a sudden, this comes with additional paperwork and additional costs and you see you can buy the same product for a price from another EU member states. Once you make that shift, and you start purchasing from somewhere else, you are unlikely to go back and purchase from UK at any point in the future," she tells Euronews via Zoom.

Ireland is happy to step up to the challenge. And culturally, their products are very similar to those from the UK. Shane Hamill from The Irish Food Board has been preparing for this kind of opportunity for years, even though the vote took place in June 2016.

Speaking to Euronews, Hamill says this is a long-term opportunity for Ireland.

"What we expect to see now over next few months is an increased presence of Irish food and drink on European shelves. This is our time to shine, post Brexit."