For most of the EU, nothing has changed due to Brexit. We go on with our busy lives and the pandemic currently occupies most of our attention. Why bother with Brexit anyway, when the economy suffers either way and in much worse ways than Brexit ever could? In a way, Brexiteers were spared a lot of humiliation due to COVID-19. After all, who can say for sure what the effects of Brexit were on the British and EU economies, when a pandemic has already shrunk all our economies (or at least halted our growth) and in some cases has even sent countries into bankruptcy. One group of people certainly feels Brexit very strongly however: business owners.
Too often the term business owner gets confused with with wealthy investors. Investors are fine. They are profiting, as always. The financial sector is fine. People working in big firms in London might not be, they either had to relocate to mainland Europe, or got laid off, but the financial sector itself is relatively unphased by Brexit. Preparations had been made long before and over 99% of Euro trades moved to mainland Europe on the day the transition period ended, without a hitch. Some investment firms turned their back on the UK, others stayed in hopes for new growth opportunities after the economic downfall.
But enough about investment banking, when I talk about business owners, I mean people who run businesses for a living. This includes, UK fishing companies that are now facing export problems, EU citizens, who own companies in the UK, but now require visa to enter the country where they run their business, shop owners on both sides, who are unable to keep their shelves stocked with certain popular products, and larger corporations with supply chains, who are being disrupted and have difficulties completing their advanced products on time, such as cars, and therefore suffer heavy losses.
Those that can afford it, or simply cannot afford to do otherwise, turn away from trade between the UK and the EU. The additional paperwork, the added time and effort required, they disrupt the routines these businesses have established and often cause additional costs, costs that smaller companies (e.g. a bakery) simply cannot bare. The big financial firms in London, that so many Brexiteers wanted to punish, are absolutely fine. The small local shops, however, may very well be in jeopardy.
I am the state
Yet, both the British government and the EU seem unbothered by any of this. If you listen to the EU team that negotiated the free trade agreement, you can get a glimpse at why Britain left the EU (even if its own government suffers from the same problems). When confronted with the question of how businesses were supposed to cope with any of these new bureaucratic measures, representatives of the EU are usually baffled and respond by stating that
- The EU-UK trade agreement is the first in history that actively aims at creating trade barriers, rather than dismantling them and this was the will of the British people.
- Both the EU and the UK had communicated all the information, including necessary procedures and forms that need to be filled out, well in advance.
And indeed, the EU is right that Brexit was initiated by the British and they cannot expect to have their cake and eat it too. It is also correct that all of this information was communicated or at the very least published well in advance. But here is what politicians and bureaucrats alike do not understand: Politics, the EU and Brexit are not on everyone’s mind.
The error in thinking that everyday people, which includes business owners, care even half as much about the EU or about Brexit as those that work on it daily, is precisely the reason why Brexit happened in the first place. People are not educated about politics in schools, in some cases, by design and even if they are, most simply choose not to engage with the bothersome matter, because they have enough personal issues to contend with.
Is that a good thing? Of course not. In fact, I would argue it is a sign of democratic decay and Brexit is a first big symptom of it. However, it is a fact that this is happening and while actors such as civil society will do their very best to get people engaged with the democratic process, it is up to politicians and bureaucrats to ultimately realise what is going on and change their own daily treadmills from within. It is not easy, and it is not something they need to do alone. Citizens should be a part of this process. That is why it is incredibly disheartening to see new initiatives like the Conference on the Future of Europe, being shot down by the national governments of the EU. Instead of a vibrant citizen-led two year process to revamp the European Union and its democratic processes, we will be silent witnesses to yet another bureaucratic talking round between the European institutions. It is developments like these that can turn even the most europhile person into a eurosceptic. It is very sad indeed that the warning sign in the form of Brexit never even made a European head of government flinch.