In the months after the UK voted to leave the European Union, the prevailing mood among businesses on the continent was one of denial – a kind of disbelief that we would actually go ahead with it.
In recent months, that mood has flipped quite dramatically.
Now, in Brussels and Berlin, the main question Britons are asked is not whether they will do a u-turn, but why they are not simply getting on with it.
That’s the impression I’ve been left with having spoken to a range of businesses and their representatives on a tour of the continent.
Are they ready for Brexit? Not especially.
Much as is the case for some British exporters, the issue is too vast to contemplate, the unknowns too unknown.
Consider the case of the small businesses located around the Netherlands, which do a fair amount of trade with the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
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Business Europe, the lobby group, says it has identified a whopping 30,000 of them which simply have no experience of trading outside the single market.
In other words, as and when the UK leaves, they will have to learn a whole swathe of new regulations, fill in a whole load of new forms and possibly pay some tariffs on their exports.
That is hardly the end of the world, but it represents more grit in the wheels of commerce.
Or consider ColVisTec, one of those German companies that’s a class leader in a field you never knew existed – in this case making UV scanners for factory assembly belts.
Their contingency plans for a hard Brexit will simply mean cutting UK businesses from their list of suppliers and finding EU based providers instead.
Or Scabal – one of Europe’s most renowned tailor and clothmakers.
Given their mill in Huddersfield is one of their main status symbols (did you realise UK woven wool is still the world’s finest?) they will fall victim to whatever Brexit we throw at them.
Time is running out, says chairman George Thissen.
“Ideally we would need to know now,” he told me. “Some of our decision processes take more than a year, a year-and-a-half.
A hard Brexit, he says, could mean their goods could “be stuck for days, even weeks in customs. We deliver next-day to all our customers, so that potentially could have dramatic consequences.”
What is his contingency plan? It means going back to what Scabal did before the UK joined the EU – having a bonded warehouse in Brussels (in other words, with customs checks) into which its goods would come and go.
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But it remains unclear whether that would be compatible with the UK’s future customs arrangements, which, to him at least, remain unclear after the Customs White Paper.
The notion that time is running out was a common refrain throughout our trip around Germany and Belgium.
Those were the words of Joachim Lang, director general of the BDI – Germany’s business lobby group.
They, alongside their other major European counterparts, will visit Downing Street on Monday to put their concerns to the Prime Minister.
“There’s not that much time until March 2019,” said Mr Lang. “Of course we are preparing for hard Brexit, anything else would be naive.”
Those comments were echoed by Markus Beyrer, director general of Business Europe.
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“We hope for the best,” he said. “We try to contribute everything we can towards good and feasible solutions. At the same time we also need to prepare for the worst because it would be naive not to be prepared.
“You have very exposed companies, you have very exposed sectors, you have very exposed countries or parts of countries. So we are doing everything to avoid this cliff edge, to avoid this hard Brexit.”
And in comments which may concern the PM, he said more detail was still needed.
The pressure on the Prime Minister, and on Britain’s overall position, continues to build.
Most business groups on both sides of the Channel point out that while only a small number of companies have begun their contingency plans – moving people and money out of the UK – unless there is more clarity by January, or March at the latest, others will follow shortly.
Source: SKY News