Peter Wilsher sees a few cracks of light in a predominantly black single market picture market single.
One year in and one can detect distinct signs of single market disenchantment around - not to mention single market battle fatigue. So many of the eloquently promised benefits have failed to arrive. Some barriers have vanished, but others remain only half-demolished. Footdragging is rife, with only 115 of the 219 measures that made up the 1992 package yet fully incorporated into national law. Even when they are on all the 12 members' statute-books there is often little enthusiasm (let alone resources) available for implemention and enforcement. In Brussels the internal market commissioner, Raniero Vanni d'Archirafi, is proud to announce that some 588 legal complaints against various governments have been settled 'by friendly agreement'; but there are a further thousand or more still clogging his departmental files. Meanwhile the UK trading authorities have launched a full-scale investigation to discover why British tenderers find it so hard to expand their meagre share of Europe's £500 billion-a-year public-procurement requirement. Its findings, which are due in the spring, will no doubt reveal a whole catalogue of fresh discontents.
Fortunately, though, the picture is not uniformly black. Despite recession, and all the well-rehearsed problems of language, culture, mutual suspicion and entrenched protectionism, there are a number of gratifying successes to report. Many of them have been scored by companies which, at first sight, seemed too small, too poorly located, or working in too difficult an area of business to be in with much of a chance. Their example shows what can be achieved by dedication, persistence - and, of course, the ability to build and deliver a better mousetrap.
Take, for instance, Valpar, a relatively tiny Northern Ireland enterprise which makes flexible pipes for the brewing and soft drinks trades. Its products sound simple and straightforward, but in fact are anything but. They involve the packaging of several plastic tubes inside an outer skin, plus two more carrying a continual steam of coolant, so that several different liquids can if necessary be pumped simultaneously, under conditions of completely guaranteed hygiene, refrigeration and non-contamination, all the way from storeroom to dispensing tap. So high are its standards, and so keen its prices, that it has been able to win orders as far afield as McDonald's in Moscow and Euro Disney in Paris, and now exports 60% of its £3-million-a-year output. But most importantly, it has been triumphantly able to meet the daunting standards set by the German health and safety executive and sell into Europe's largest and most chauvinistic beer market. In its own, highly specialised niche, it is a clear European and indeed world leader, and that is the target towards which all serious fellow-aspirants need to aim.
Flymo, the well-known manufacturer of rotary lawnmowers has organised its affairs rather differently. It, too, spends a lot of money on technical innovation, and sets great store on having something new and improved to offer customers for the start of each grass-cutting season. But its big single market breakthrough was to persuade its parent, Sweden's Electrolux, to press for a uniform (and low) pricing policy right across Europe. The earlier analysis was that Community gardeners were too set in their national ways to offer much scope for a product that had been deliberately standardised for mass promotion and manufacture. But in the event, demand for a cheap and reliable machine has been more than enough to overcome any pernickety local insistance on blade height or width of strip.
As a result it has been possible to refine and streamline the entire operation, from parts purchase to retail distribution, and by the end of this year, if everything goes according to plan, the hover-makers, if no one else, will be within a truly integrated Europe.
That is the comprehensive approach, though, and only certain types of activity are adapted to move so far and so fast. Many and perhaps most others have still to make the first crucial breach in the dyke which establishes them as serious contenders in the tough, suspicious, stranger-resistant territories on the far side of the English Channel and the North Sea. But it is too easy to take refuge in excuses. The destination can be reached, even when conventional wisdom indicates that there are near-impossible mountains to climb.
At one end of the scale there is Stadco, a Shrewsbury-based specialist in automotive-assembly equipment. With sales plummeting among its traditional but hard-pressed UK customers, it invested long months of speculative effort in interesting, working with, and generally cultivating the German car-makers who, until then, had never favoured it with the time of day. The initiative finally paid off with a £21 million order from Volkswagen's Audi susbidiary, won in the teeth of opposition from VW's phalanx of local suppliers. Stadco had been able to offer something they had not got - knowledge of Japanese-style 'lean manufacturing' techniques - and that provided the essential market-entering edge.
But you don't have to be small to find the going tough. The UK's heavy electrical giants have never achieved much penetration of the main European energy markets. So PowerGen can claim to have achieved a real breakthrough with its just-finalised joint deal to exploit the enormous resources of the East German brown-coal fields.
It can be done. But 12 months has made one thing clear - there are few easy pickings in the single marketplace.
Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.