Ulster-born Steve Murnaghan, managing consultant of Amsterdam based Northern Ireland Trade Consultants looks at the monster that is Brexit, from the Dutch perspective.
Anyone who has met the Dutch before will know that they are pretty direct - call it blunt - in describing it as it is.
In terms of language, their English is excellent, given the fact that they learn it from a young age at school and are exposed to subtitled TV programmmes, rather than dubbed.
Kids enjoyed daily helpings of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show at a young age and went on to develop a great feel for English comedy – especially classics such as Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and The Young Ones.
So really no surprise when Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs Stef Blok, whose department wanted to attract the attention of businesses in the Netherlands, with the question whether they were prepared for Brexit, chose for humour rather than serious or technical words.
The Brexit Monster campaign went viral attracting social media comments on the choice of a bright blue hairy monster, whether the eyes were like a rabbit in the headlights, the fact that the monster had no mouth or whether Blok was in charge of the Ministry of Furry Affairs ?
The reaction from the Dutch business community was immediate. His tweet drove companies to a government site to carry out a “Brexit Impact Scan” of their business. In the eight hours following his tweet the scan was completed by 5000 companies - the average daily figure was previously c. 160.
The Cookie Monster-like campaign, which including ads and radio ads cost €550,000, achieved what it set out to do and probably a bit more - to trigger Dutch business into action.
Stef Blok was not the only Dutch Minister in the national and International press in recent days. The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, a self confessed Anglophile who has stated on record that he hates everything about Brexit, went into the tackle with his studs showing in interviews with European newspapers. Rutte said last week that Britain would be “diminished” by Brexit, adding a no-deal departure would be “devastating” and “insurmountable” for the British economy.
Let’s be clear, the UK is one of the Netherlands’ key trading partners, and the Dutch government estimates even a soft Brexit could cost the country 3% of its GDP over time. The Netherlands could be one of the biggest continental EU losers from a hard Brexit given the close trading links between the two countries especially in fresh produce and the importance of Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, to British trade.
That’s also why indigenous Dutch companies, especially exporters to the UK, are being assisted by the Dutch government to seek alternative markets – with a budget of €4 million available in 2019 to companies who fit the criteria.
A voucher or subsidy towards 50% of consultancy costs incurred is available to companies who engage specialist advice to explore alternative markets.
Could it be that one of the nations predicted to be hardest hit by a no-deal Brexit might just turn the tide in its favour.
As well as calling Dutch companies to action, presenting Brexit as a giant blue “Muppet” serves as a reminder that, for those who want to keep a foothold in the EU, the Netherlands is wide open for business.
The Netherlands’ position as a strong, stable economic hub, just next door to the UK, where English is widely spoken is also attractive to foreign companies. As major job cuts are being announced in the UK on a weekly basis the Dutch are receiving foreign investors with open arms.
In 2018 the Netherlands gained nearly 10,000 additional jobs from a total of 372 foreign companies. The Invest in Holland network brought 42 companies to the Netherlands as a result of Brexit, accounting for 1,923 jobs and some €291 million in investments, including the relocation of the European Medicines Agency to Amsterdam.
Additionally, they are talking with more than 250 foreign companies considering setting up operations in the Netherlands and already in 2019, several companies, including Discovery and Bloomberg, have announced their intention to invest in the Netherlands because of Brexit.
NITC has dealt with a number of requests recently from Northern Ireland companies wishing to establish a Dutch / EU business presence – representative office, warehousing or production facilities in the Lowlands – and has tailored its services based on this demand.
So despite PM Rutte saying that it was difficult to assess the negative impact of Brexit in the short term the Dutch are seeing benefits as companies shift from the UK, and he added with a smile “We can’t prevent them coming here.”
I speak with many Dutch businesses on a daily basis on behalf of the Northern Ireland companies they promote and introduce.
In general the Dutch show genuine concern and cannot believe that the Brexit situation has been permitted to come this far especially when the province itself, like the Scottish, did not chose to leave the EU.
The Dutch understand from widespread media coverage the issues surrounding Northern Ireland and voice their concern about how it may affect their relationship with suppliers from Northern Ireland, especially if goods are being transported by road across mainland GB, as many are.
Supermarkets in the Netherlands who have developed longterm relationships with fresh food suppliers are used to receiving a flexible and swift service from Northern Ireland suppliers with transport times of 36-48 hours as a standard.
Although they appreciate the quality of the produce I have been told that they will not abide delays, extra paperwork nor any extra cost from suppliers.
In the two years since the Brexit vote the Dutch have been quietly, conscientiously adapting.
Dutch companies are careful not to be over reliant on single source supply and those with UK suppliers will ensure that they have other arrangements in place should a hard Brexit or a No deal Brexit come into force. Even loyal customers will draw a line when the existing trading relationship is negatively influenced by external factors.
Northern Ireland shares extensive trade links with the Netherlands. In fact we export more (per head of capita) to the Netherlands than any other Continental European country.
Large Northern Ireland enterprises who have a truly global client base will surely be able to diversify to other global markets but spare a thought for the high number of family owned SMEs in Northern Ireland for whom the Netherlands is an important export market.
The loyal Dutch can and will survive with us but they will do all they can to maintain their trade links with Northern Ireland – just unfortunately not at any cost.
At times like this the relevance of the Northern Ireland - Netherlands Trade & Export Society becomes clearer than ever in maintaining longstanding trade ties, bringing individual companies and executives who understand each other together.
If by Friday the 29th of March no deal is made, we must hold our breath to find out what April Fools’ Day may bring and learn how, across many sectors, Northern Ireland will continue to trade with the Dutch!