I have commented before on a deeply protectionist, almost corrupt, culture of business in the EU that appears to offer advantages but in reality strangles innovation, stifles growth and deepens a sclerotic inefficiency that costs jobs. My old example was hairdressers; here a hairdresser must serve a three-year aprenticeship before she can pick up the scissors, whilst in the UK a 16 year old straight from school can hang her shingle without hindrance and get creative with hair. The result is that most women here look like their hair is styled by a Soviet camp tonsorist from a 1950s gulag, whilst Brit girls pioneer the world's most fashionable and glam hairstyles.
Over the Easter weekend I recalled another. I've known about this for three years but for some reason haven't written of it; it is the network of 'business only' suppliers here. It's the way in which buyers in these nations are forced to engage professional tradespersons by restricting or preventing other means of carrying out the work. Many firms simply won't deal with you unless you have a business registration number. There is no equivalent to UK Builders' Merchants for example - just the DIY stores or the 'profi' wholesalers. One can't buy glass at €8/m2 in stock pieces to cut yourself but must order each pane in a finished size at €35/m2 from a glass retailer. You can't have a palette of bags of mortar delivered next day or buy rolls of building membrane except at consumer prices.
There are ways round it for some things - Germans are slightly less constipated than Austrians, and consequently it's been cheaper, including transport cost, to order bulk plasterboard and insulation from Northern Germany than from the local stockists of the same-brand material down the road. It's always worth searching .pl and .si sites as both Poland and Slovenia sometimes carry German and Austrian made materials at a substantial discount.
The most absurd result of local protectionism is Travertine. I'm tiling the new bathrooms in Travertine stone tiles, quarried and cut in Italy, just to the south. You'd think they'd be cheap, then; wrong. You can't buy them for under €65/m2 anywhere here - but I can buy the same tiles from the UK for €22/m2. The transport costs were exactly the same. Now explain to me how it's cheaper to truck stone from Italy to the UK and back to Austria than direct to Austria?
Over the weekend I needed to order some German Häfele ironmongery for a project - you may know the name, we use it widely in the UK. No chance. Häfele only sell to the trade - and helpfully offer to put you in touch with a local profi to do the work for you. They even make their buyers sign a declaration to promise they won't resell the Häfele kit.
Well, you won't be surprised that all of these restrictive practices are unlawful in England - not illegal, but contrary to Common Law. Contracts in restraint of trade are unenforceable. My hinges are available here on the grey market for €24 a pair; I've ordered them openly from Birmingham, from a trade supplier, at £9 a pair and will have them within a week.
It's a small thing perhaps, but an irritating barrier to economic freedom. It's one of the reasons for the zero VAT threshold here - you're either a tradesman or you're not, with no room for the sub-threshold activity we have in the UK. But it will kill them - it's a system that can only work in the absence of the internet.