When I was growing up in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, Europe was a distant place from which our ancestors once came, and where we might one day go on holiday if we could afford it. My understanding of Britain was influenced mainly by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Monty Python and songs by Elton John.
Fast forward to today: I’ve been a resident of the UK for 20 years, a British (and European) citizen for most of that time, and with my wife I am raising two sons in Bath. I’ve built several businesses in Europe, employing hundreds of people, and I spend a lot of time currently working with US-based digital companies looking to expand into the UK and Europe.
So you could safely say that I have both a personal and a professional interest in Brexit. And I’m not encouraged.
One of the underlying premises of my company, Atlantic Leap, is that the UK serves as a comfortable gateway to the rest of Europe. It’s an English-speaking entry point that has a good affinity for things American, and offers easy access eastward.
Brexit blows this up. Instead of a gateway to Europe, Brexit Britain becomes something disconnected, floating off to the side.
Personally, nothing excited this Brooklyn boy more than to see “European Union” embossed at the top of my passport and to know that it gave me access to the diverse offerings of an entire continent that served as the cradle of western civilisation. What a privilege to be able to travel freely and, even for a moment, imagine myself living and working carefree in places such as Paris, or Rome, or Madrid.
When my sons came along, I told them how fortunate they were to have that opportunity, along with the double privilege of their American passports. You’ll be able to live, study and work anywhere in Europe, Britain or America, I told them.
But no more. I considered myself a citizen of the world. Theresa May took direct aim at me. “A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere,” she pronounced in one of her more memorable bits of sloganeering. What I shouted back at the Prime Minister’s image on the telly can’t be repeated here, but suffice to say it would be equally pungent in either British or American English.
From a business standpoint, to be fair, so far the negative effects from Brexit have been muted. Britain remains a first-world market of 65 million English-speaking consumers, an attractive proposition for any business even on its own. This won’t change overnight.
Still, there are major dangers. An economy sinking in decline after a loss of access to the vast European common market will be one with less spending power and therefore lower potential for new market entrants. A country crafting its own rules will be less efficient and will add cost and complexity compared with a single market with harmonised regulations.
The brain drain will bite, as highly qualified Europeans depart the UK for more comfortable circumstances back home. There isn’t a single successful company I’ve worked with — especially in London — that didn’t have a diverse multinational team fuelling it. There is no substitute for the blend of different backgrounds and perspectives that can produce great new businesses.
What’s upsetting is that it didn’t need to be this way. The Brexit referendum was sufficiently ambiguous to permit any number of interpretations. A Brexit that retained access to the single market, or the customs union, was entirely feasible. All it would have taken was some leadership.
Unfortunately the government retreated into sloganeering rather than substance, leaving the hardest form of Brexit seemingly the inevitable outcome. The strategy seems to be that it’s better to make enemies with Eurocrats in Brussels than with political rivals in the Cabinet or with MPs on the backbenches of Parliament.
The government continues to pretend it’s in a negotiation, but any reasonable observer will conclude that we’re heading off a cliff; Europe’s positions seem clear, consistent, non-negotiable and incompatible with the idea of a “deep and special” bespoke deal.
It’s ironic that a party that calls itself “conservative” may in fact be leading the most radical and extreme government in living memory — willing to destroy Britain’s privileged access to the world’s largest single market, willing to antagonise our closest neighbours and trading partners, all while continuing to damage economic growth and devastate local communities by inflicting needless austerity in spite of all reasonable economic guidance.
But at least it will be a “red, white and blue Brexit,” according to Theresa May. And that’s something to hold on to, right? Soon enough, if things continue on this path, she may after all be the Prime Minister of Nowhere.