Headaches abound for Swiss citizens in post-Brexit Britain

Uncertainty: Swiss expat Jérôme Robert runs a watch company in London with his British partner Anneke Short.

As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, Swiss expats in the UK are now also grappling with the consequences – commercial and personal – of Brexit.

This content was published on January 24, 2021
Nicole Krättli, London

Recently, at the Hook of Holland ferry port in the Netherlands, a British driver and his ham sandwich found out first-hand just what the repercussions were of the UK’s post-Brexit going it alone.

“You are no longer allowed to bring food such as meat, fruit and vegetables into the EU,” a customs officer told the surprised motorist. Could he at least keep the bread without the ham, he asked?

“No,” replied the officer, filmed by a Dutch TV camera. “Welcome to Brexit, sir. I’m sorry.”

Empty shelves, customs and VAT

Shelves in the UK are emptier than before, so much so that last week the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s had to sell products from rival retailer Spar. Upmarket department stores like Fortnum & Mason have temporarily stopped shipping to Europe. Customers from all over Great Britain and Northern Ireland are complaining about cancelled deliveries and unexpected customs duties from continental Europe.

Many people – business owners in particular – still have more questions than answers. Swiss national Jérôme Robert runs a watch-making company in London with his British partner. Though he has been trying for months to gather the information needed for his Camden Watch Company to continue to supply customers in Europe, there is a lack of clear directives coming from the government.

“We’ve decided to ship orders anyway and just wait to see what happens,” says the 36-year-old watch designer. His fear however is that his European customers will suddenly be charged customs duties; it would be even more disastrous if, from now on, he had to register individually for VAT in every European country he ships to.

“The administrative burden would be so big that we would have to stop serving certain niche markets and concentrate only on the most important countries,” the French-speaking Swiss expat explains.

Data protection fears

Ané-Mari and Marc Peter, who have been running the London-based graphic and web design company on-IDLE for the past 20 years, are worried about VAT.

“Whereas before there was just one rule, now it’s much more complicated and time-consuming,” says Ané-Mari Peter.

And VAT is not the only stumbling block. For the past two weeks, due to more unclear tax rules, they have been unable to pay their employees in the Czech Republic.

Another problem for the web designers is data protection. Since leaving the EU, the UK no longer falls under the European General Data Protection Regulation. And so, business clients could get into legal difficulties if their websites are run on UK servers.

Tax and legal unknowns: Ané-Mari und Marc Peter, who have a graphic and web design business in London.

“But in order to host a website in the EU, you often need to have a business address in the country in question. So our UK business address won’t get us very far there,” says Peter. She says that attempts to get concrete information about the situation have been unsuccessful: “communication by the government is vague. Many matters are left open to interpretation.”

International couples

Brexit is not just a business headache for Swiss expats. The UK’s breakaway from Europe also presents a challenge for binational couples. Sandra Keller* and her British partner have been living in Edinburgh, Scotland, for over seven years. They are planning to move to Switzerland as soon as the Covid-19 situation allows.

Whereas before December 31 the couple would simply have had to book a flight to Switzerland to start their new life, relocating is now more difficult. As a third-country national, Keller’s partner is subject to much stricter immigration laws.

“We’ll probably have no choice but to get married,” says the 33-year-old from Zurich. This was on the cards sooner or later, “but doing so for the sake of a visa is incredibly unromantic.”

When she first moved to Edinburgh, Keller started off completely from scratch. “I just came here and built a new life for myself,” she says. “My boyfriend is now being denied this freedom and opportunity. It’s really sad.”

But even marriage won’t solve all their problems. Before he can apply for a B permit as a spouse and thus receive a residence and work permit, the couple must first be living in Switzerland. “This is very risky as we will have to give up everything we have here and move back without any guarantee it will all work out.”

Ané-Mari Peter, who is also a board member of the Federation of Swiss Societies UK, understands the frustration of many Swiss abroad, but says things are not all bleak.

“Over the past few months, I have felt a great sense of cohesion within the Swiss expat community. People help each other in online forums, share information and support each other.”

And, at the end of the day, Peter says, complaining doesn’t get you anywhere. “Brexit is a democratic decision that we have to respect. Now we just need to knuckle down and get on with it, as they say over here; or, as we’d say back home: “Gring ache u schaffe!”

*Since her employer has not been informed of her plans to move, Keller does not want to make her real name public

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