Brexit in the eyes of a much travelled Englishman...

As an Englishman who has lived much of his life outside Britain (in Sweden, USA, France, Germany, Austria and Belgium), who has pursued a business career across five continents, and who is very happily married to an Italian-Swedish-American, I am often asked what I think of Brexit? This question has added weight as I serve as Managing Director of a trade association in the wood industry, the European Panel Federation, and am based in Brussels dealing daily with the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The easy answer is that I am a “Remainer” and thus strongly oppose the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. As with all matters Brexit, though, the devil is in the details.

Like many, I was shocked to awake on 24 June 2016 and learn that we had voted to leave the EU. As a middle-aged Londoner, the feeling in my immediate neighbourhood and social circle had been massively in favour of Europe. However, as we all learnt after the event, the 52/48 vote in favour of “Leave” was mainly the result of complacency on the part of Remainers (especially the young), and of grim determination on the part of many Leavers (especially the not so young). It is easy to be wise after that event, but a lot harder to now undo the effects of this seismic vote. Britain has cherished democracy since the days of Oliver Cromwell. As much as many of us would wish to, we cannot now simply overturn a national referendum on the basis that “people didn’t understand what they were voting on”. Besides, if we were to have a new referendum today the result would still likely be 52/48 in favour of Leave. (A poll conducted by YouGov recently confirmed exactly this). It seems that some Leavers are now Remainers, but strangely the reverse is also true. A small portion of Remainers have reacted to the perceived hostility of Brussels towards Brexit, and are now Leavers. So indeed “out is out” to quote Mrs Merkel. The bigger question now is “out is out, but what is ‘out’”?

Much of the talk in Britain today is about soft v hard Brexit, and about the transition period (2019-?). Opinion polls still talk about 52/48, yet that split now reflects the majority that favours a soft Brexit. Largely this signifies Britain staying in the Single Market and accepting the four freedoms of movement, especially of people. Immigration was the key battleground of the Brexit vote, and for many “taking back control of our borders” remains an absolute must. However the introduction of the transition period is a perfect way to move away from that. Government and people increasingly accept that a clean and complete break from the EU-28 in March 2019 is simply unrealistic. The notion of a transition period, following the 2 year exit timeline, is thus increasingly attractive, even if it does have the disadvantage that it will allow everyone to potentially delay all the toughest decisions. However perhaps that is no bad thing if it gives the United Kingdom a chance to experience what Brexit really means, without totally shutting and bolting every door behind us in the rush to appease our 52% Leavers.

It is often said that “a week is a long time in politics”. If that is so, then 2 years is nigh on an eternity! Yet that time period since the triggering of Article 50 will flash by, and March 2019 will be upon us before we know it. There is talk of intervention from Westminster, of a change in Prime Minister and even of government, and of another referendum based on the terms of what is negotiated, and on what Brexit will thus truly mean. No one can know what will happen in these next 18 months. There is only one certainty, and that is that neither the United Kingdom, not Europe will be the same again following this tumultuous process. Let us pray that whatever the final outcome, there will not be a winner and a loser, or worse still, two losers. We must do all it takes to ensure that both Britain and Europe somehow benefit from this self-inflicted chaos. For this to happen, we need our politicians to act like Statesmen and Stateswomen, and not anything less. Even if they were asleep on the day of the referendum, we still owe that much to our young.

* Clive Pinnington joined the European Panel Federation in April 2015 as Managing Director. He is a Board Level Business Leader with 25 years of experience in B2B Management of industrial products.