Brexit’s delay until Halloween is a momentous event for millions of people and businesses. There’s not going to be a no-deal Brexit just yet and, while the matter remains far from settled, Europe’s collective sigh of relief was probably audible from Messier 87.
But enough about everyone else. Let’s talk about me and my new guitar.
Object of desire
Apart from being a journalist, I’m also the singer and rhythm guitarist of a Berlin-based three-piece alt-rock band called The Board—to say “you wouldn’t have heard of them” is less hipster boast than humbling reality. We’re very EU, as two of us are Brits living in Germany (the drummer is from here.) And for quite some time now, I’ve had a yearning for a guitar from a modestly-sized American manufacturer called Reverend—I’m attracted by the company’s warped-retro aesthetic and incorporation of high-end technical features at a reasonable price.
Last year, Reverend provided a special edition of one of its models to a guitar shop in Glasgow, Scotland, called Merchant City Music. It was a limited run of only a dozen instruments, and I missed the boat, largely because my wife had at that point sensibly instituted a ban on any more gear purchases during 2018. Then, in January of this year—ban lifted!—I noticed that the store had managed to order a second run of the guitar in question.
If you’d rather avoid guitar nerdery, skip to the next paragraph now. The object of my pining was a £799 ($1,050) Reverend model called the Charger HC, which has a form that’s vaguely reminiscent of a Fender Telecaster, but more rounded, and this particular special edition is painted a beautiful, old-blond-Tele-style translucent white. It also features the recently-developed Railhammer Humcutter pickups, which are voiced like P90s—one of my favorite pickup types—but without the annoying 60-cycle hum. And, like most Reverend guitars, it includes a “bass contour” knob that will allow me to set up my amp with a chunky, bassy tone, then roll off the bass on the guitar as needed. It’s a stunning blend of old and new. Yum.
I must have it. My future sound depends on it, or at least that’s what I tell myself. So I placed my order, but with some misgivings.
You see, the guitar was only going to be manufactured and delivered in April, and back in January, the U.K., where my guitar’s Merchant City Music shop is located, was scheduled to leave the EU at the end of March, before the ship date. And the way things were going at the time, that could cause me problems.
If Brexit was going to happen in an orderly way, as set out by the agreement U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May had struck with her EU counterparts, then the transitional period would mean no change. Because the EU functions like one country as far as trade is concerned, my guitar would arrive sometime in late April as painlessly as if it had been dispatched from another German city.
But if the U.K. crashed out without a deal—a distinct possibility at the time—it would suddenly become a “third country” in relation to Germany, and my guitar could be held up in customs, and I’d probably have to pay a hefty fee to claim it. I’ve previously had painful experiences sitting in the Berlin customs office for hours, waiting for the privilege of paying a 19% import tax for goods I ordered from the U.S. I’d rather not have a couple hundred bucks slapped on top of this instrument’s price. But what could I do? I wanted that specific guitar and there was only one supplier who could give it to me.
Fast forward to today, with Brexit having been postponed for six months as of Thursday, I can breathe easy. My guitar will just show up at my door like any other delivery, and I won’t need to pay any surcharge or take time off to go sit in a line.
So what? Well, this is just one item, and not a vastly expensive nor essential one—but it’s one of many items whose sellers and buyers continue to face the same uncertainty. According to the U.K.’s own statistics, other EU countries accounted for 44% of British exports, worth around $360 billion, a couple years back. More than half of the U.K. imports, worth around $449 billion, came from other EU countries. That all adds up to a lot of cars, industrial machinery, medicines, clothing, and vegetables facing the same Brexit-era quandary as my coveted guitar.
Symbolism aside, I am fully aware that my fixation on this guitar and its potential customs charge is rather silly in the grand scheme of things—or even in my own personal context, which is luckily more secure than that of many Brits in other EU countries and Europeans in the U.K.
I have lived in Germany for almost eight years by virtue of the fact that I have a British passport, and anyone with an EU passport gets to live anywhere in the EU. I have a German wife and a German daughter, and I don’t think I’d have much trouble getting residency, even in the case of a sudden no-deal Brexit.
But even knowing that, the uncertainty around Brexit has been deeply frustrating. When the cliff edge was scheduled for late March, then mid-April, and a no-deal catastrophe was still looking very possible on either deadline, I was avoiding booking any travel outside Germany around those dates—what if the U.K. was to crash out and I found myself facing difficulty getting back in, even temporarily? All the while, I was sending nervous emails to Richard Cameron, the owner of Merchant City Music, to check on the guitar’s delivery schedule. No change; still sometime in late April, he said.
I may have been an unsettled customer, but it’s fair to say that, as a business owner, Cameron has it worse.
He told me in a Thursday interview, shortly after the U.K. got its latest six-month extension, that I was far from the only customer on the European mainland to worry about the practicalities of buying a guitar from Scotland.
“We do get asked the question from customers in Europe,” Cameron said. “Not everybody knows where we are [in the Brexit process.] Some people think the U.K. has already left Europe, so we have questions from customers as close as France asking, ‘How much do I have to pay in taxes and duties if I buy from you?’ It is definitely a concern.”
Cameron is reasonably phlegmatic about the likely impact of Brexit, once it happens and businesses start to adapt. He doesn’t like the idea of new tariffs between the U.K. and EU, both in export and import terms, but he’s used to shipping guitars to and from countries outside the EU anyway. My Reverend guitar is a case in point, being manufactured in South Korea, shipped to Toledo, Ohio for final checking, then flown to Glasgow. (Yes, I’m embarrassed about this instrument’s carbon footprint.)
“Whatever happens, we will just have to accept it and get on with it,” Cameron said. However, he added, Brexit has put companies in “no-man’s land.”
“There’s very little in the way of preparation that the government has done for businesses,” he said. “Only a couple weeks before the first Brexit date, the tax office started sending emails around saying, ‘You need to be prepared for a no-deal Brexit.’”
“There’s huge potential for it to affect sales, but that’s dependent on what the deal is,” he said.
Voting for chaos
I am convinced that the British populace did not vote for this uncertainty. Every time I see a hardcore Brexiteer insist that people knew what they were voting for when they opted to leave the EU, deep skepticism sets in.
On a short road-trip through Wales with my mother days after the 2016 Brexit referendum, we stayed a night at a pub in the village of Pontllanfraith, where my mother was born, and got talking to the Leave-voting innkeeper and his friend, who had voted similarly.
We were unwillingly sucked into a discussion about Brexit, so I asked them why they voted for the U.K. to abandon the EU. The answers will always stick with me. They believed that the U.K.’s wishes were constantly thwarted within the bloc—in reality, as one of the big beasts alongside Germany and France, the U.K. almost always got its way. They weren’t concerned about Wales, a poor region, losing the vast amounts of EU infrastructural funding that it currently receives, because “infrastructure doesn’t necessarily bring jobs.” They blamed the media for constantly presenting opposing viewpoints on the issue, rather than simply stating the facts; for that reason, they’d tuned out of the debate. And most importantly, they were consciously registering a protest vote against David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, by opposing his pro-EU stance.
I’m sure the innkeeper and his friend weren’t anticipating that a Brexit outcome in their favor would lead to the paralyzing uncertainty that’s played out in recent months. I don’t think anyone foresaw the mess that lay ahead—not even those on the Remain side.
But now the can has been kicked six months down the road, and perhaps it will be kicked further after that. The British Parliament still shows no sign of agreeing on a way forward, and now they get to dither for another half-year at least. Business owners still face tremendous uncertainty over investments and supply chains that involve the EU, but at least they don’t have to worry about an imminent cliff-edge.
And, thankfully, I don’t have to worry about what will happen to my guitar anymore. There’s an empty wall-hanger in my apartment waiting for it, and I very much look forward to playing my band’s Brexit-themed song on it.
Indeed, when the guitar finally arrives later this month, part of me is tempted to call it “Brexit.” But when this fiasco is over, I doubt I—or anyone else—will be grateful for the reminder.