Backing 'Brexit,' A Salmon Smokehouse Says It's Been Swimming Upstream : Parallels Mom-and-pop businesses are considering how a British exit from the EU could affect them. The owner of Britain's oldest salmon smokehouse, who wants out, says EU membership dilutes British culture.

Backing 'Brexit,' A Salmon Smokehouse Says It's Been Swimming Upstream

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's focus on just one voter. He's a British voter facing a choice to yank his country out of the European Union. His view of that broad issue grows out of his own specific experience. And that experience helps to explain why British voters are evenly divided on this summer's vote, even though experts warn that departing the EU would be a mistake.

The voter spoke with NPR's Lauren Frayer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On the banks of a canal in industrial East London sits Britain's oldest salmon smokehouse.

Hi, I'm Lauren Frayer.

LANCE FORMAN: Hi, Lauren.

FRAYER: Nice to meet you.

The owner of this fourth-generation family business is Lance Forman.

FORMAN: So you've got sheet covers. And then once the sheet covers are donned, you've got the hairnets.

FRAYER: We don protective gear, and he gives me a tour.

FORMAN: Here we are in the smokehouse. We take the freshest salmon we can get our hands on. It was swimming a day or two before we got it.

FRAYER: Here, 80 employees filet and salt salmon by hand, then hang the fish in giant smokers.

FORMAN: This is exactly the way my great-grandfather would have been doing it 111 years ago. And he was an East European Jewish immigrant that fled the pogroms, settled in London's East End in the late 19th century.

FRAYER: Today, Forman employs many Eastern Europeans and says some of them are worried. They're allowed to live and work here because Britain is part of the EU. But their boss wants Britain to leave that union.

FORMAN: I travel to Europe. I have very good friends across Europe. That's not what this is about. It's about the organization, which has become too powerful, un-Democratic, corrupt.

FRAYER: He says he's had to spend thousands of dollars complying with EU regulations that he calls ridiculous - things like labeling his smoked salmon as containing fish for people who have allergies or refraining from building a new factory wing on nearby canal wetlands. The U.K. government estimates that up to half of its laws and regulations come from Brussels.

Foreman says that's diluted British identity.

FORMAN: People need to feel their culture and their patriotism and their nationality. And you're losing that. And people are sort of resenting that now. And economics don't work, the single currency doesn't work. And I think that we need to be that first domino to fall.

FRAYER: Economists say that if Britain leaves the EU, it's the British economy that will falter.

THOMAS SAMPSON: Overall, U.K. GDP would go down by 5 percent. And that would mean that, you know, the activity of the average small business, sales of the average small business would be hit by 5 percent.

FRAYER: International trade economist Thomas Sampson says people like Lance Forman are voting with their hearts rather than their heads.

SAMPSON: I think their view is, well, there may be an economic cost, but that's a price we're willing to pay to regain what we see as our lost national sovereignty.

FRAYER: Back in the smokehouse, Forman says he'll lobby to keep his EU employees no matter what happens in June's vote. Half of all U.K. trade is with the EU, and that could be hurt. But Forman says he wants to expand sales elsewhere anyway. He walks me over to a rack of salmon destined for the U.S.

FORMAN: An American customer (unintelligible).

FRAYER: This is being sent to America to Whole Foods?

FORMAN: Absolutely, they have a particular specification that we do for them.

FRAYER: Forman sells directly to customers worldwide. And he says he doesn't need Brussels to negotiate a trade deal for him. He currently has to pay customs duties when he ships to places outside the EU. And if the vote goes his way in June, he may have to pay to send his fish to Europe, too.

That, he says, is a price he's willing to pay, though. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

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