Meet Brexit’s latest potential victim: the Mother’s Day bouquet. While the tumult in Westminster is keeping political pundits in clover, the decision by MPs to vote down Theresa May’s deal this week has sent petals flying among Dutch exporters, who are responsible for 80% of the flowers sold in British shops.
As the risk of a no-deal Brexit was raised, LTO Nederland, the organisation that represents Dutch agricultural producers, formally warned its members of major problems if they do not get products into the UK before Brexit day on 29 March.
“For the floriculture sector, it is also important that March 31 is Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom – an important selling point for suppliers of flowers and plants. It is expected that due to a shortage of facilities and employees, there will be major problems at the border, and therefore delays,” said LTO Nederland.
Once out of the EU, unless there is a status quo transition period of 21 months, as planned in the prime minister’s deal, today’s current seamless trade will be fractured by customs and phytosanitary checks.
Delays, exporters warn, mean wilting flowers, empty shelves and disappointed Mother’s Day customers.
About €825m (£725m) worth of flowers and plants were sold by Dutch companies into the UK in 2018, down from €950m in 2016, due to the fall in the value of sterling. But whether it is freshly cut tulips, potted plants or small trees, the Netherlands still remains the No 1 source for British florists, garden centres, corner shops and DIY stores.
Matthijs Mesken, the director of VGB, which represents Dutch wholesale exporters of flowers, said he was confident his biggest traders would ensure their products would be in the shops ahead of Mother’s Day and “as fresh as last year”.
“You can deliver it Saturday for the Sunday, but that will maybe be too late,” he said. “We will deliver the flowers the week before.”
But Mesken added that Mothering Sunday kicks off the busiest season for florists and that without a deal in place, chaos at the ports will begin. “Two weeks later, or Mother’s Day next year? We will have a problem,” he said.
“If you are a florist in the UK you can buy flowers from us at 4pm this afternoon and they will be delivered tomorrow morning in London or in the afternoon in Manchester,” he said. “But after Brexit, deal or no deal, that will change. It is not that easy, maybe it is impossible, to order flowers in the afternoon and deliver tomorrow.
“If we have a transition period we can work out our systems, we can prepare ourselves for the changing logistics,” he added. “If we don’t have a transition period, from 1 April it will be chaos. There will be delay in the harbour, and we are dealing with fresh products. So every hour of delay in the harbour reduces the quality.”
Mesken said he had a lot of questions for Michael Gove’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) but it was proving “very difficult for them to give us answers because it is not certain what will happen”.
“We ask where the inspections will take place of our products in the UK,” he said. “Not in the harbour, because there is not space for all the trucks. At the shop? Garden centres? And they can’t answer until now. So that makes it very difficult for us to prepare.”
Michiel van Veen, the operations and supply chain director at Royal Lemkes, Europe’s biggest exporter of plants, which ships 50,000 plants a week into the UK mainly through the port of Harwich, has had a similar experience of the British authorities.
He said: “With the regulations prepared now by the UK authorities, it is not really possible almost to export plants to the UK in a no-deal scenario.
“Under the formal regulations at the port of Harwich you cannot bring in any plant materials. But that is the main port of entry to the UK. Every company doing something with plants is using Harwich. So it is something stupid written down that is not practical.
“We had telephone calls and we were to have a meeting last week but it was postponed on the UK side because of the political state at this moment.”
Van Veen added: “I was looking at the BBC yesterday night and looking at what is happening over there, and I don’t know what game is being played. But I can only take my responsibility.”
A spokesman for Defra, without reference to customs checks, said: “In a no-deal scenario, the majority of plants and flowers which come from the EU will be able to enter the UK without requiring plant health checks, just as they do now.
“Some high-risk plants will need plant health certificates, known as phytosanitary certificates, and the importer will need to notify the relevant UK plant health authority that the goods are arriving. There will be no plant health checks at the border for this material, and so there should be no delays in moving the goods across the UK border from these new requirements.”