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European Neighbours’ Day: Is Doing Business Across the Continent Getting Easier?

This Friday is European Neighbours’ Day, an initiative started in 2000 which aims to bring the many cultures of Europe closer together. The EU is home to one of the most intricate set of cultures in the world and you only have to look at the political landscape in nations like the UK and Spain for a sample of how complex things can be.

In many ways the EU has made doing business across the continent easier. It also opens the door to markets beyond Europe through the EU’s global trade network. What it doesn’t do however, is bridge the cultural gap between different nations and this is where businesses have to take their own initiative.

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The complex cultures of Europe

Let’s not pretend any of the world’s regional blocs are culturally simplistic or even united, as Europe’s long corporate history comes with a lot of baggage. We mentioned the UK earlier, which is grappling with its own identity – both with the involvement of member nations and its very place within the EU.

We’re not the only nation disheartened with the EU it seems. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have all felt the unforgiving brunt of recessions under the Euro. Meanwhile, Spain is in the midst of an identity crisis of its own as the Catalans push for independence grows ever stronger. That’s without even mentioning the Basque and Galician subcultures within the country.

Nationalism is on the rise in many countries too as the migrant crisis becomes a growing concern for voters and a stronger tool for right-wing politicians.

All of this has a knock-on effect for businesses trading across borders as the socio-political and economic landscapes change at a growing rate. The very policies defined by the EU are a constant power struggle between nations with their own agendas. In many ways, the challenge of cultural diversity is ingrained into the EU at the highest level and business owners aren’t the only ones trying to bridge those gaps. So is the EU really all that it’s cracked up to be?

Turning cultural diversity into opportunity

For UK businesses the financial ease of trading in European nations will change after the EU referendum, regardless of whether we stay in or not. A new trade deal will likely follow, whatever the outcome – either to improve our position as an EU member or hold on to whatever trade agreements we can.

On the cultural side of things, little will change. Each new market you embark on calls for a deeper understanding that moves beyond translating your marketing material and product documentation. Experts commonly divide Europe into five or six “cultural clusters” – both on a political and consumer level – which comes with a number of factors to consider:

  • The business culture: Understanding how to network with firms, partners and investors in new markets.
  • The consumer culture: Which affects how, why, when and where people buy products.
  • The economic environment: Which impacts consumers and small businesses the most – but also the potential value of any market for yourself.
  • The social environment: Where you’ll find the most pressing topics of the day vary a huge amount across different countries and sometimes regions.
  • The legal environment: Not all the regulations you face are consistent or defined by the EU.
  • History and tradition: A kind of cultural DNA that plays a large role in the business and buying decisions people make.
  • Cultural identity: Do your Northern Irish consumers consider themselves British, Catalans Spanish and Sicilians Italian?
  • Neighbour relations: Neighbours in Eastern Europe are perhaps the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others and they’re not all negative (think the Basque regions of Spain and France, for example).
  • New trends: Culture and tradition are vital but so is the ability to spot new trends in each market and the unique spin their cultural backgrounds may put on them.

At a glance, these can easily look like barriers that make doing business across Europe a daunting prospect. But these aren’t so much obstacles to overcome as they are opportunities to connect with consumers on a deeper level, bring them closer to your brand and open up to new markets. This is the kind of understanding European Neighbours’ Day aims to establish between EU members and business owners can learn a lot from that.