French media explores Brexit Day tensions with Watford business Aonyx
January 31 has come. Ahead of the day that the UK will formally leave the EU, French media outlet France TV Londres has delved into the lingering division surrounding one of the greatest economic issues of our times in the Hertfordshire town of Watford, speaking to business leaders and locals with differing views of what to expect once Brexit takes hold.
Back in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, the vote in Watford was a 50-50 split between Leave and Remain. It did not take long for the French broadcaster to see the differences in opinion.
One local gentleman they approached played down the likelihood of post-Brexit trade disruption, saying that the UK will be "free to create its own laws" after 23:00 GMT on Friday. Another aired his concerns that large, multinational businesses could seek to move their premises out of the UK to countries where trading conditions become more lucrative, depending on the outcome of negotiations concerning a future UK-EU trade deal this year.
Of course, a Withdrawal Agreement is already in place ahead of January 31. However, nothing is yet decided in trading terms, with the future UK-EU economic relationship still to be negotiated during the 11-month transition period between January 31 and December 31, including a trade deal.
Should a UK-EU deal not be in place by December 31, then trading with the bloc will default to World Trade Organisation terms which is very much akin to a no-deal Brexit scenario in terms of red tape, ensuing disruption, and trading conditions changing overnight.
For firms like Aonyx, a Watford based smart home installation firm which imports equipment for its products from Europe, the prospect of trade talks failing is understandably a major concern.
However, managing director Richard Reid is optimistic that negotiations will proceed smoothly and that trading conditions will not be subject to swift and drastic change after December 31.
Reid told France TV Londres: “The worst case scenario [from trade negotiations] is that we crash out and trading conditions change, tariffs are applied on both sides, and both the UK and Europe enter into recession.
“But I’d like to believe that politicians on both sides don’t want that to happen”.
Indeed, Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have both indicated that a drastic change in trading terms is best avoided, favouring a future trading relationship based on "zero tariffs, zero quotas".
Yet, in spite of the potential cliff edge for trade talks, other business leaders look at the unfolding scenario with a very different attitude. Wetherspoons founder and chairman Tim Martin has already removed French champagne from all menus in the Wetherspoon chain, and told the network that if the EU looks to be punitive in trade talks or negotiations come to little fruition, then the UK consumer will simply look to source their products from the wider world and ultimately Europe will lose out.
In short, even on the day that the UK leaves the EU, the populace is no closer to knowing the full extent of how Brexit will affect trade. But what is for certain, is that division is still rife even now the hours are ticking, with Watford just one settlement straddling the chasm.