David Cogswell | June 28, 2016 5:00 AM ET
Brexit: When the Unimaginable Happens
I often think back to the fall of the Berlin Wall when I think about watershed moments in history, and to remind myself that the unimaginable can happen. I knew people who were in Berlin at the time The Wall came down and it seems to have caught nearly everyone by surprise, even up to the day it happened. Until the moment the East Germans walked out into the No Man’s Land between East and West, no one was entirely sure what was going to happen or what could happen.
Now in 2016 what was nearly unimaginable even a few days ago has happened and Britain’s population has voted to leave the European Union, showing that not even the largest institutions in the world are invulnerable to change.
I include myself as one of the clueless Americans who were caught totally off guard. Though it had been creeping up for a long time, I never reached the point of believing it could happen until it did. Now I look back and wonder how I could have been so out of touch even a week ago.
It seems like the British population and even the government itself were caught almost completely unprepared in terms of what to do if the unimaginable happened. I couldn’t help thinking of the car-chasing dog that finally caught one. It’s a strange transition when the vociferous opposition finally has the reins of power handed to it. Do they know what to do? It seems as if even the ones who advocated most stridently for the split are not sure now that they want to go through with it.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned the morning after the election, took a big risk by setting up the referendum, thinking Britons would reject it. And the EU took the risk of also not believing the British population would go so far. Everyone seemed to assume the status quo would prevail. But this time it did not, and now the heavens are shuddering.
Now we are all watching to see what happens next. How much of a calamity has taken place? Or is it a calamity at all?
Looking back from this vantage point there seems to have been some inevitability about this trend. It may have been uncertain whether things went this way or that in specific instances, but there does seem to be a large overarching trend that led inexorably to this result. This set of problems did not arise overnight.
The Greece debacle, only a year ago, seemed to bring the EU to the brink of its viability as an institution. In the age of 30-second attention spans, a year seems like an eternity, but the Greece default was only the worst of a series of fiscal disasters that had been taking place in succession in the EU, including steep fiscal problems with Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands.
The Greek population voted in a referendum to reject the bailout terms of the EU, but eventually the referendum was overruled and Greece knuckled under to accept more austerity — much to the chagrin of many voters.
At that time Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, wrote that “Europe never had the pre-conditions of a single currency.” And this simple statement seems to be at the heart of what is going on now.
“Why are there so many economic disasters in Europe?” Krugman asked after the Greece referendum. “Actually, what’s striking at this point is how much the origin stories of European crises differ. Yes, the Greek government borrowed too much. But the Spanish government didn’t — Spain’s story is all about private lending and a housing bubble. And Finland’s story doesn’t involve debt at all. It is, instead, about weak demand for forest products…”
What the countries did have in common, said Krugman, was “that by joining the eurozone they put themselves into an economic straitjacket.”
And when there were problems, the heads of the EU responded as an inflexible bureaucracy, assuming that their equations must be correct and would ultimately prevail. They just did not have the mechanisms in place that could coordinate all these diverse countries’ economies and confront the problems on the ground.
The immigration problem was like a knife to the throat of many rank-and-file Britons, but there was no solution offered. It was an economic problem, over jobs and housing, but the bureaucracy was too rigid to respond effectively in a timely manner.
The Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend said that a renegotiated deal from the EU allowing more control over immigration “would probably have (just) stopped Brexit. But the absence of a deal sent a clear and crushing message: The EU isn’t interested in reforming, so it is past time to stop pretending otherwise.”
The Brits rebelled against having to live under laws made by nameless bureaucrats in another country and against national leaders that seemed impotent to address their pressing problems.
The Journal rejected the idea that Brexit reflects a new rise of nationalism. “To see such worries as resurgent nationalism is to oversimplify,” said the Journal editorial. “The nation-state is a social construct: Done properly, it is the glue that binds society together. In Europe, the losers of globalization are seeking the protection of their nation-states, not a remote and unresponsive European superstate.”
So maybe this is not all bad. At this point all we can do is watch and see what happens. At times like this it is reassuring to be able to return our sights to the travel industry, which is in many ways at the opposite end of the spectrum from politics.
While political news focuses on large themes and abstract concepts that are often hard to translate into any meaning on a practical level; tour operators deal with the realities on the ground. They see the large political movements in relation to their own businesses and the safety and well-being of their clients. They see currency exchange fluctuations, border disputes, wars, civil disruptions and natural disasters in terms of their actual effect on people and civilizations.
The tour operators I spoke to last week seemed unable to work up a sweat about Brexit. In the short term, travel to Britain is a bargain, and also bound to be even more exciting than usual because of this added element of historical change happening right now. It’s a great moment to go and get a feeling for it yourself, on the ground, what is happening, how people are reacting.
Chances are it will look much the same as it has looked in the past. Big Ben is still ticking. The Tower Bridge is still standing like a great, timeless work of art. The British Museum is still free admission. The Brits are still who they are.
Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures, who professes no authority to talk about the possible ramifications of Brexit, expressed his view in a way I can appreciate.
“I have to look at it like a stone cast into a pond,” said Austin. “There is a big splash and dramatic ripples, but in time the ripples fade and the pond returns to calm (until the next stone).”
This is emblematic of the tour operator view, very practical, focused on the tangible facts of business, withholding judgment on large political issues and their implications.
Somehow I think we’ll get through this.
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