Accessing EU markets

Euro stars: Continental drift

Brexit may have disappeared from the news headlines in recent months but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s meant firms have had to adapt to continue to trade in what is a huge market on our doorstep.

Worth some €14.5tn and 14% of the world’s trade in goods, and with a population of around 448 million people, the EU cannot be ignored.

But as has become apparent, print has been affected by the UK’s departure from Europe. However, some firms – among them THEMPC and Jamm Print & Production – have found the obvious solution to what could have been a serious threat: they both opened up on the continent.

The BPIF has data

Before we examine what THEMPC and Jamm did, it’s important to consider the background to the exporting conundrum.

Kyle Jardine, economist and Northern Ireland Manager for the BPIF, is well aware that most printed products benefit from zero trade duties but he points that there are still significant barriers to overcome. He says: “They are a bigger hurdle to small companies – many of which benefitted from a largely seamless trade environment, and easy access to EU markets whilst the UK was part of the EU.”

As background, BPIF analysis of HMRC data shows that since 2015, in the main, UK print has exported more to non-EU markets than to the EU except in 2019 and 2020. To highlight the point, in 2015 EU markets bought print exports from the UK valued at around £1.4bn, £1,6bn in 2019 but only £1.2bn in 2022. In contrast, non-EU print markets were worth around £1.55bn in 2015, £1.5bn in 2019 and the same again in 2022. 

Regardless of the mix, exports of these values are not to be sniffed at even if, as Jardine comments, “the nature of trade in printed matter has changed in recent years as a result of both Brexit and Covid”.

Overall, Jardine sees exporting as a challenge. He says: “On top of developing contacts and finding and securing business – it requires that companies pay attention to more complex contract terms and the use of incoterms [internationally recognised three-letter trade code terms produced by the International Chamber of Commerce].”

With bureaucracy being a perennial problem, the BPIF strongly advises companies pay extra attention to the administration burden and ensure that they follow government advice on using EORI numbers, the correct commodity codes, understanding what the tax implications are and ensuring that appropriate customs declarations are made.

“As ever,” says Jardine, “with change there can be shocks and hurdles, but adjusting and adapting is key – something that the printing industry is well-versed in doing.”

Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but Jardine is bothered by the extra Brexit complications around trade between the mainland and the province which he says, “are unwelcomed, and likely to continue to be a political stumbling-block”.

That said, Jardine expects that the Windsor Framework agreed in February (2023) should smooth out some issues. However, he comments that “the administration burden and mixed-load transportation are still causing some issues. Companies in Northern Ireland can technically benefit from easier access to EU markets, but time will tell if many are able to take advantage of this”.

It’s evident that for small export orders courier selection can be key. Indeed, Jardine warns that “the BPIF has been made aware that some Northern Ireland exports have been labelled with Great Britain stickers by couriers – which can obstruct their onward journey to EU-based clients”.

Ultimately, Jardine reckons that while trade is not dead, it has changed. “The UK,” he says, “is a net exporter of trade in printed matter, but there are some sectors which import significant volumes of print.” He continues: “Companies have taken different approaches – including investing in an EU-base (those with significant export markets), training and developing in-house expertise in exporting, and building a network of trusted partners.”

Of course, smaller companies may not wish to take-on the administrative burden of exporting, but that doesn’t mean, in Jardine’s view, that they should avoid working with overseas clients altogether. “The long-talked about distribute and print model, as opposed to print and distribute, is a workable solution for smaller companies that can build a network of overseas printers.”

With the picture painted we can now look at what THEMPC and Jamm Print & Production have done. They’ve taken similar yet slightly different tacks. UK printers might learn from their experiences.


In 2022, Hampshire-based THEMPC opened a production and warehouse site in Hampshire along with an operations hub in Munich. 

Paul Marsh, managing director, explains that the facility in Munich is actually third-party owned and his company just has a trading relationship with it which is set-up on THEMPC’s SwagOnline software to process and manage customer orders.

Why open in Europe?

The driver for the move was simple – the open borders policy within the EU. As Marsh comments, “a perfect storm of Brexit and Covid meant that clients weren’t necessarily based in offices anymore. When you are shipping goods to home addresses across the world individuals are being asked to pay duties and taxes personally and then claim them back from their employers and it was just a headache that they didn’t need.” 

Now, with a location inside the EU, THEMPC manages such deliveries through its SwagOnline system. “Clients have access to both our UK and EU facility and can pick and ship from either warehouse,” says Marsh. And the system is working, which is why, looking to the future, Marsh can see the next stage of growth in Europe being where “we acquire our current partner’s business or look to open our own when the amount of stock or number of clients dictates this would be the best move”. Beyond that are plans for the US and Australia, but they aren’t a priority right now.

It should be said at this point that when speaking to customers, suppliers, and prospects, Marsh “often wonders who it was that voted for Brexit” as “no-one I speak to thinks it was a good idea”. He adds: “I think for traditional exporters with knowledge of international trade it didn’t have had a huge impact, just inconvenience.”

He sees the biggest issues arising where individuals and firms never had to ship outside of the EU, only within. They, he says, are now met with barriers, costs and delays that didn’t exist before and international shipping isn’t straightforward. “You could send 10 identical shipments out, seven could be delivered and three held and when they are all delivered and you receive the invoices for duties and taxes which are all different amounts – it’s an absolute minefield.”

Marsh seems troubled that the communication from government during Brexit wasn’t tailored to specific industries: “I don’t think they paid much attention to SMEs; as with most things, it could have been handled so much better but hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

Other locations considered

Before setting-up in Munich, Marsh considered creating a THEMPC-owned facility in a number of different countries in the EU. The closest he says he came to this involved locations in either Slovakia or Czech Republic as a former client had moved back there after living in the UK for some time.

But that didn’t work out. “Although we had investigated staffing, facilities, and so on, there were very high costs involved in creation and maintenance of a company compared with in the UK. To put this into perspective, the costs from the accountants and the lawyers in Slovakia was per month what I pay annually in the UK – so the cost for an investment part of the business was going to cost 12 times as much the established business so commercially it didn’t make sense.”

Working with a third-party business in Munich was clearly a far more sensible option. And this relationship will carry on until, as Marsh says, “we have an established network of clients with product being distributed within the EU to manage the risk”.

Marsh’s thinking and reticence is based on hard-won experience. Early on in his career he worked for a successful marketing and print management company that had set up in the US. “The amount of money invested in the business, which didn’t grow as quickly as projected, ended up causing the UK business to fail. I didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

Interestingly, Marsh spent months looking at a number of potential options via Google searches and recommendations from clients based in Europe: “We shortlisted half a dozen companies and then conducted online meetings to qualify capabilities and requirements. The final stage were face-to-face meetings where we visited the facilities and met key stakeholders to re-enforce our requirements and expectations.”

Cost calculations

Despite the link with the Munich facility working well, it’s not all been plain sailing for THEMPC. Marsh doesn’t yet have a registered company set up in the EU so says that he can’t reclaim VAT on goods ordered from within Europe. He also says that “sometimes the duty we would pay on bringing goods into the UK is less than the VAT would be delivering directly on the continent”.

While he knows that international trade is a very complicated subject and international shipping is probably even harder, the biggest issue he faces is that costs are calculated in a different way. He explains that in Europe, rather than being charged for a process, a job is often charged according to the time taken to complete it: “That is alien to us; you could have a very quick or a very slow person managing a process and as such the costs for the same orders are different every time which is frustrating.” That said, Marsh is of the view that “with all of the extra costs associated with managing client orders within Europe it is still far more cost effective than shipping from the UK and our clients also don’t have any of the hassle.”

Something else that many wouldn’t expect are problems that follow on from the EU’s open borders. Here Marsh explains that with the thousands of shipments that THEMPC sends each year from the UK and EU he “always encounters issues, but interestingly the open borders don’t always help”.

The problem seems to be courier-specific: “Some couriers are far more technologically advanced than others.” His ideal is a courier that THEMPC “can API directly from SwagOnline into their system to create all of the paperwork with the automated commercial invoices uploaded to avoid any unnecessary delays or issues with paperwork missing from shipments. This used to be a common reason or excuse for shipments being delayed”.

Advice to others

Would Marsh recommend opening up in Europe?

In short, he would, and says that “if you have enough of a demand in any region I would say go for it as anything can be done if you put your mind to it”. However, he points out that a wrong decision can be very costly: “If you have any doubts or don’t have the experience or skillset to deals with the potential issues that will arise, then steer clear.”

Marsh states that if the clock could be turned back that he “would definitely do the same again and wouldn’t change the process”. In fact, he says that “there are plans for further facilities in the US and AUS but these are less of a priority currently”.

Jamm Print & Production

Four years ago, London-based Jamm Print & Production moved some of its work from the UK to the continent by opening a new office in Prague. The goal was to mitigate the uncertainty caused by Brexit.

For Liz Shackleton, managing director, “waking up to the Brexit results on 24 June 2016 was a shock”. She says that for nearly 30 years the company had been developing its work for charities and non-profit organisations which is the core of its work. Notably, of its direct mail clients, half are charities in EU countries. 

Over the 12 months following the vote for Brexit, Shackleton says that “it became clear that the relationship the UK was likely to have with our former EU partners would be combative if not hostile, and we realised that we could not – should not – rely on any idea of ‘business as usual’”. As anyone in print knows, schedules are generally quite tight, and Jamm sees the same. The very real fear for Shackleton was that mailings would languish at UK or European ports for days waiting for clearance.

The need to keep clients

She explains that the company decided, late on in 2017, “that if we wanted to keep our clients, and keep our clients happy, we would have to look at a production base that did not involve those concerns about delays”. This led to what she calls Project Jamm Europe.

Setting up a business overseas was nothing new to Jamm. Indeed, as Shackleton tells, “in 2008 we set up Jamm Print & Production Pty Ltd in Australia, working with one of our charity clients to build their presence in Australia”. This gave the company a working model that it could adapt to the situation in the new, UK-free EU. In time, Shackleton says that the company has added new clients and products, “and our Australian subsidiary, although still small, has been a profitable addition to the Jamm family”.

So – Europe. As Shackleton explains, the company hit on the idea of setting up in Prague, mainly for logistical reasons: “The largest charity that we mail for is German, and so we looked at Germany and countries that border it. We were looking for a location that offered the services we needed, at a manageable rate; our research led us to the conclusion that Prague was the best choice.”

Involving clients

Before making the move Jamm held meetings with those major clients that would be affected by the change. “We had a long relationship with most of them,” says Shackleton who adds that “they were supportive and helpful”. It appears that they too had also seen the way Brexit negotiations seemed to be going and were worried about the implications for their mailings if Jamm UK continued to handle the work. Shackleton was pleased to leave those meetings “feeling relieved, and confident that it was now up to us to develop our services in Prague so that we could meet the needs and expectations of our clients”.

The Australian experience had taught Shackleton that “having a trusted and knowledgeable manager was paramount”. But unlike Australia, the company didn’t know anyone in Prague that it could approach, so Jamm advertised. Shackleton wasn’t expecting a deluge of applicants, but did get two that caught her eye. One was a print industry professional, a Czech national, wanting to return home following the Brexit vote, and the other was a Czech, resident in Prague. “After a mix of face-to-face and online meetings we decided these two would be ideal to establish and run our new venture. So we were off and running.”

A good experience

The opening in the Czech Republic went smoothly, and having someone on the ground in Prague certainly helped the process along. Shackleton says that the Czech authorities were helpful. The company found accountants, opened local bank accounts and located premises. The directors went to Prague to hold extensive meetings with potential suppliers; this led to the development of a plan that determined how everything would operate and the services that Jamm could offer. The employment of staff came next followed by the arrangement of a trip for the clients that Jamm hoped to serve from Prague. As Shackleton explains, the objective was “to introduce them to our new company and our new staff, and to reassure them that the service we would offer would be maintained”.

The new operation in Prague officially started in May 2019. And four years later Shackleton is pleased to say that “the company has managed to retain and develop all our European clients. We have also added others”.

Would Shackleton do the same again given what she and the company have learnt over the last four years? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. As she says, “I’m sure we have made some mistakes, and could have done some things better. But as for all companies, Covid was a nightmare and most of our clients in Europe are charities – and charities had to keep mailing during Covid.” She is happy that the indications are that the company will move into profit this year – one year behind the forecast made back in 2019 in pre-Covid times.

Brexit was not good

Fundamentally, nothing that has happened since 2016 has changed Shackleton’s view that Brexit has not been good for print, or any other industry for that matter, and the problems caused have been severe. She explains: “There are still some mailings that we handle from the UK because of their complexity. Early on we had mailings stuck at ports for days. That situation has improved, but the paperwork and red tape involved have significantly increased, taking up valuable administrative resources.”

And the desire to use the open borders of Europe “made it easy for us to distribute from Prague”, says Shackleton. “Covid restrictions did mean a significant increase in delivery costs, but those are slowly coming down.”

It’s very clear to Jamm that opening in Prague was the right thing to do as it helped ensure the company did not lose the European clients it had worked to develop. And the loss could have become serious. Shackleton remarks that over the years “since Brexit it was noticeable that wariness about trading with the UK had increased, particularly as the tone of Brexit negotiations became clear. I have no doubt that it would have been much more difficult for us to retain these clients without a presence in Europe”.

There is one natural question – what was the impact to Jamm in the UK from moving so much work to Europe? Did it have an effect on the UK operation? In answer, Shackleton says that it did and that it was amplified by the pandemic. As she says: “Covid hurt us – our commercial work, and work for museums and art galleries suffered significantly during lockdown, but we are now getting to the point of recovery.”

In summary

It’s patently clear that print firms are still selling into Europe, but that hurdles that weren’t there a few years ago have now been laid before them. There are a number of options but as has been seen, the most obvious may be simple, but requires work to get off the ground. 


Government advice

Institute of Export and International Trade

Trader Support Service (TSS)

Northern Ireland Customs & Trade Academy