Normandy wants the British entrepreneurs who are anxious over Brexit

Chris Penketh, a 54-year-old Business Development Director in North Yorkshire, is displeased with Brexit negotiations but would still vote to leave.PARIS—Normandy may be famous for D-Day landings and Camembert cheese. But these days it’s hoping for another kind of invasion: British entrepreneurs escaping Brexit.

Last month, the Normandy development agency, AD Normandie, launched a charm offensive urging British business owners to “vote with their feet,” cross the English Channel into the European Union and leave their Brexit fears behind.

Britain is set to leave the EU in March 2019. But the shape of its future relationship with the block is still unclear. As a result, many British executives worry that customs, immigration and regulatory barriers will disrupt their business with EU members.

In response, many EU countries, France included, are rolling out the red carpet for them.

"You will find the process as smooth as their Camembert ... or their oysters for that matter," read an ad plastered on a double-decker bus that AD Normandie hired to tour London and other British towns recently to attract local businesses to northern France. The bus parodied the pro-Brexit busses that were part of the Vote Leave campaign.

In British newspapers, AD Normandy ran a tongue-in-cheek advertisement that included a mock newspaper called the Normandy Times. In the mock newspaper, a personal ad sought a “hot entrepreneur” who “must have an appetite for business, beautiful coastal walks and long sun-drenched lunches with wine flowing.”

Transport for London, which manages the Tube and other public mass transport in the British capital rejected the ad for its stations and vehicles, saying it was too “controversial.”

Still, AD Normandie representatives said around 30 small-to-medium sized British companies have requested meetings to talk about setting up business in France. “A week after the campaign ended, three of them came to Normandy to see what could be possible,” said Alexandre Wahl, who heads AD Normandie. “These companies don’t know what will happen with Brexit, but they are aware things won’t be the same.”

Companies that rely heavily on the EU market for their supply chains and employee recruitment, like the automotive, aerospace and high-tech industries, worry they won’t be able to source components or hire foreign talent once Britain leaves the union.

As a result, they are considering alternative headquarters in the EU. British budget airline easyJet last year set up a subsidiary in Austria that would allow it to keep operating flights between EU countries after Brexit.

Although many British businesses are adopting a “wait-and-see” approach in the absence of a final deal between Britain and the EU, the trend is likely to continue.

“This is part of a long game,” said Alasdair Darroch of Altios UK, a consultancy that advises companies on international business development. “No doubt, in 10 years time, there will be more divergence in the relationship between the UK and Europe. It’s going to be important for some companies to have a base in Europe where they can keep trading without complications. It will happen, and it will happen more in the years ahead.”

To entice British businesses, Normandy has set up a special zone offering tax breaks and help accessing grants of as much as $123,000 to foreign companies that decamp to France. There are also incentives for families to settle in the area, which is already the home of around 8,500 British expats thanks to its proximity to both southern England and Paris.

This special economic area, the first in France, will be key in attracting foreign businesses, said Hervé Morin, president of the Normandy regional council. “It’s very well placed because it’s close to the industrial port of Le Havre, and it’s an important economic area with an excellent infrastructure,” he said. “So the idea is to have a company that will accompany foreign enterprises as they settle here, helping them with recruitment, property and schools.”

Normandy’s charm offensive follows similar moves by Paris, as well as other European capitals, to lure banking giants currently based in London’s financial district.

Shortly after the Brexit referendum, the La Defense business district in Paris ran a public relations campaign touting the French capital with the irreverent slogan “Tired of the fog? Try the Frogs!” on billboards at London’s Heathrow airport and the London terminus of the Eurostar trains.

The moves come as President Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, is capitalizing on Brexit woes to fulfill his pledges to attract foreign investments and shake up France’s reputation as a business-unfriendly country with high-taxes and maddening bureaucracy.

He has made strides.

In January, the French government secured a $368 million investment by Japanese carmaker Toyota to increase capacity at its northern French plant, with 800 new jobs to be added by 2020. U.S. giants Facebook and Google as well as German software maker SAP have also pledged to boost their footprint in France.

But central to Marcon’s vision is beefing up the financial sector in France, which is tiny compared to the financial industry in London. No big banks have left London so far, but large American and British banks have proposed expanding their offices in France as Brexit approaches.

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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