Since 1066, the English Channel has been a very effective moat for Great Britain. But during our generation, Britain has seen a new kind of invasion from the Continent — a peaceful, political one. And with the Brexit vote, the British people have decided to pull up the drawbridge.
I remain a staunch supporter of the European Union. But with the UK’s decision to leave the EU, my idealism has taken a serious blow. I’m flying to Europe this weekend. And from a practical standpoint, for travelers heading to Europe soon, I don’t see much of a difference…other than a cheaper pound sterling, and plenty to talk about with your new European friends. But what about the long-term consequences? Here’s my take.
For years in my lectures, I’ve said this about the European Union:
Imagine Europe amid the ruins of World War II. As people began to dig out, they thought, “Twice in our lifetimes, we’ve gotten into horrific wars. We have to do something drastic, or our children will be digging out again. We need to weave our economies together — especially France and Germany — so that going to war in the future will be inconceivable.” So European citizens got together and created the European Union, a “United States of Europe.” It’s been a stuttering evolution — two steps forward and one step back — for nearly 70 years. Of course, there’s no meaningful union unless you can talk sovereign nations into giving up real sovereignty. That’s a tough sell — especially in Europe. But the EU is here to stay. And even with its cumbersome political correctness and its almost comical excess of regulations, the EU has created a free trade zone big enough to compete with the USA and the emerging economies of China and India. But the real triumph of the EU is that Europe is at peace.
With the Brexit, I realize my statement that “the EU is here to stay” may be wrong after all. Suddenly, the future of the EU is murky. What I do know is that the EU is about to shrink from 28 to 27 member nations and lose 17% of its economic clout. The world’s gateway to the EU is logically London — as English is the language of globalization and London is the world’s financial capital. The EU has lost that. Britain has lost it, too.
I also see the Brexit vote as a symptom of the populism and nativism that is sweeping the Western world. This is a big day for those who believe cooperation is for losers. It’s a good day for Putin, and it’s a good day for Trump. Is it as good day for the white, working-class, less-educated, rural and rust belt voters who cast the deciding ballots? Time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: At home and abroad, those voters feel their voices are not being heard.
The referendum didn’t instantly pull the UK out of the EU. That will require a long negotiation, likely lasting years. So now Britain and Europe have to deal with the reality of an acrimonious divorce. Both parties will try to come out on top, both will be attempting to compromise with an undercurrent of anger, and both will lose the shared efficiencies they’ve enjoyed as a couple. One thing is clear: It will be messy, and there will be no winners.
You can also think of this unlinking biologically: When something has grown together, it’s painful to tear it apart. No matter how slow and careful you are, it’s going to hurt.
Nobody knows exactly what will come of the Brexit. But let’s try looking into our hazy crystal ball:
When the dust settles, will the UK be better off? It depends on your thoughts about free trade and immigration. One way or another, my hunch is that it will become poorer. And I believe British voters will suffer from “exiters’ remorse” when the consequences of their protest vote sink in.
Will Scotland break from the United Kingdom? Hard to say. But I believe that, had they known about the Brexit when they voted to stay in the UK two years ago, the Scots would have voted differently.
Northern Ireland — which voted to stay in the EU — suddenly has more in common with Republic of Ireland. Will this be a nudge toward a (finally) unified Ireland? Or will it destabilize a delicate peace? Stay tuned.
And what about the future of the EU? It’ll always be Europe. But the momentum toward further integration and expansion has hit a wall. Nationalistic, isolationist movements are on the rise across Europe, and the Brexit vote will only embolden them. The potential domino effect — for Europe and beyond — is unknown.
And finally, how will this affect travelers? For now, nothing has changed (except that the pound is on sale). For the time being, travel to the UK and Europe remains as it was. And down the road, I imagine there may be a few more borders to cross and a little less shared affluence. In a few weeks, I’ll be in England, where I’m looking forward to hearing — and sharing — local opinions on the Brexit.
I’m famous for saying “Keep on traveling” during times of upheaval in Europe. And that’s my response now, too. I don’t want to be glib or naive about the challenges that face the UK and the EU in the coming months. It’s going to be a long and difficult process. But as I head for the airport, I’ve chosen to look on the bright side of life: For American travelers, Europe just got even more interesting.
Keep on traveling!