The accession in 2004 of a number of former Eastern Bloc countries to the EU single market meant that almost all of Europe was now open for business for UK exporters, with the homogenisation of trade laws. Of course, there had been trade with these countries before their amalgamation into the EU, but this was more difficult and very few forwarders would venture so far, leaving the market for those few companies that had a foothold in the area already. Once the barriers came down though, it was easier for the traditionally Western European carriers to introduce new services to the huge potential market that had just been opened.

However, history shows that despite the removal of many of the barriers to trading with the likes of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, there are still many cultural and geographical barriers that can hinder trade within these new markets. Internal carriage laws, customs idiosyncrasies and language issues still exist even today, so the benefits of experience in working in this market are still manifold. The ability to communicate in the native language helps to ease the stresses of moving freight behind the former Iron Curtain, and when new laws are brought in this can lead to much greater understanding and, more importantly, avoiding heavy fines! A recent example of where this understanding played a vital role was in Hungary, where the new EKAER requirements came into effect in January 2015. As can often happen in this part of the world, there was very little warning of the new requirements, so local knowledge and communication enabled specialist service providers to be ahead of the game when the law came into force, thereby allowing their customers to go on trading without fear of potential reprisals.

As with any trading area, the local geopolitical realities will also affect our business. Once again, local knowledge and presence can be vital in anticipating and circumnavigating potential problems which can erupt overnight. The problems that occurred in Russia and Ukraine in 2014 had ripple effects across the region, and the trading embargoes and regulations that followed meant huge upheaval for companies working and selling goods in the area. As a consequence any freight companies that carried these goods were also affected, so having your finger on the pulse and the ability to react quickly allows you to have the edge over the competition.

So, there are still many challenges to trading and moving freight, but this is not to say that Eastern Europe should be avoided altogether. There is much to be optimistic about – the huge investment in recent years in infrastructure projects has meant a significant increase in the quality of road networks, allowing for the huge increase in the volume of traffic. Investments in local logistics infrastructure mean that with the right knowledge the highest levels of service can now be provided throughout the region. Significant CO2 and cost savings can be made by making good use of new multimodal options which are now becoming more widely available. Once again, the importance of local knowledge and communication cannot be underestimated – finding the most efficient way to carry freight is essential when looking for that small commercial advantage that we all need to be successful.

Expectations of service quality to this area 25 years ago may have been relatively low, but this is no longer true today. With the right partners, the levels of service are as good as those of the more traditional, long established Western European carriers which can only serve to boost the confidence of companies looking further east to expand their export operations. The harmonisation of Eastern European countries with their Western counterparts is well underway, but still has some way to go. Using the expertise of forwarders that have experience in the area is, as always, advantageous, particularly for those companies looking to do regular business within the region. With the looming uncertainty of Brexit, having the inside track when communicating with the largest growth area in Europe can give you the edge that can be the difference between getting and retaining business, or finding yourself being left behind.