Before Brexit, it would have been a routine job for Netty Miles, a freelance events producer, to bring a touring exhibition to Brussels.
But since the UK ended free movement with Europe, life has become much more complicated for Miles and the team of three technicians needed to set up the exhibition, Sun, which features a 7-metre globe shrouded in dry ice.
Initially, Miles was told her crew would need to apply for a “Professional Card” to operate in Brussels. This would have required a £250 medical exam, a £100 criminal records check and an interview at the Belgian embassy — all of which could take up to eight weeks.
The £40,000 collaboration was on the cusp of being cancelled when Miles discovered that, because Sun is a co-creation between an artist and a solar scientist, the crew could use a temporary exemption that allows “artists and their assistants” to work permit-free.
“It’s been incredibly stressful. At one point I thought we were going to have to cancel, but now we are going with this letter of invitation from the museum and we just hope it will be OK,” Miles said.
With the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and business travel to Europe resuming, trade groups warn that many thousands of small UK businesses are facing similar bureaucratic headaches when providing their services in the EU.
Russell Antram, the head of EU trade at the CBI, the industry group, said the multiplicity of rules across 27 countries was “a real challenge for the largest of HR departments, let alone small businesses”.
“As the virus restrictions are removed the complexity firms are facing is becoming clearer,” he said. “It is essential the UK and individual EU member states make progress in bilateral talks to ease restrictions.”
William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) contained more than 1,000 restrictions on cross-border trade in services.
He said there was a need for bilateral agreements with individual EU member states but also for EU-level flexibility to remove the ambiguities facing employers, staff and contractors on short-stay business travel in the EU. “Businesses can’t afford to wait until the TCA review in 2026,” Bain added.
UK services trade with the EU is worth £121bn a year, of which £13.8bn is from companies with fewer than 250 employees and £9.4bn from companies with fewer than 50 employees, according to the Office for National Statistics.
As part of the TCA, British citizens can travel visa-free to the EU and stay for up to 90 days in every 180-day period — but this does not necessarily include the right to work.
The EU’s decision to introduce a new US-style electronic visa-waiver scheme, or ETIAS, from January 2023 is expected to make it easier for EU countries to keep tabs on visitors and catch anyone who overstays.
Andy Corrigan, director of Viva La Visa, a company that specialises in music industry visa advice, said that some smaller operators, such as freelance consultants or self-employed musicians, were choosing to fly “under the radar” and work without permission, but they were taking a risk in doing so.
However, the alternative for many was to stop working in the EU altogether. “We’re seeing things being cancelled because they say, ‘it’s too much grief’,” Corrigan added.
Deborah Annetts, chief executive of ISM, the professional association for musicians, said invitations to work in Europe were decreasing because of the bewildering patchwork of rules across Europe.
While some states such as Greece and Croatia offer no visa waiver, others like Sweden or Denmark offer time-limited exemptions depending on the importance of the artist, she said. In some EU countries, such as Belgium, rules differ even between regions.
“We desperately need greater mobility for musicians and their instruments.”
For Craig Hellen, the boss of Bexmedia, a four-man company in Gloucestershire that shoots videos all over Europe for major sporting teams, concerns over the paperwork and the risk of falling foul of EU law could affect the future direction of the business.
“It’s changed our focus. We’re asking ourselves, ‘do we want to target EU business? Is that going to be right for us now or will it be a false economy? Should we focus more on the UK again?’” he said.
For small companies more reliant on trade with the EU, such as Lincoln-based Infinity Engineering Services, which services gas turbine generators, the difficulty has been getting EU clients to understand their own obligations.
Richard Lemin, Infinity’s managing director, said the company had targeted the EU to help boost turnover from £750,000 to £1mn in 2022 but was having to persuade clients to help them obtain the necessary documentation.
He feared that, with permits taking up to eight weeks to obtain for jobs previously commissioned at short notice, it would become harder to compete with bigger rivals with regional EU offices from which they could service clients.
“The biggest risk to our future business relates to potentially losing our current EU clients because the work permit process across the EU is not clear or within our control.”
It is uncertain how zealously different countries will police the new rules and, ultimately, some smaller UK service providers may choose to operate in the “grey zone” provided by the visa-free travel.
But for Netty Miles, who also works with a travelling circus and whose future business growth partly depends on access to the EU, it was better to find a way to be above board.
“You hear of lots of people winging it,” she said. “But if you get caught, then it goes on your passport that you’ve breached immigration procedures. I’ve got a new 10-year passport, I just wasn’t prepared to risk that.”
The Department for International Trade said that the TCA contained some of the “most ambitious provisions on trade in services ever agreed by the EU”.
“Together with support from the Export Support Service, expanded export academies and a landmark export strategy, we are ensuring that businesses of all sizes have the support they need to trade effectively with Europe,” the department added.