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To an outsider, the difference between being in Britain and Europe is striking. In Brtain, people talk about ‘Europe’ as if it were a foreign place. In Germany, France, Spain, Italy and other EU countries, ‘Europe’ is something they belong to, even if they also have a stronger allegiance to their own country.
‘Britain’ and ‘Europe’: different perspectives
The Brits never seemed to really embrace being ‘European’, even after 40 years. They have seemed to still see themselves as a world power, though their power is largely historical now. There were times when the heads of Germany, France and Britain stood together as the guiding lights of the EU but, under the Comservative Party, they have stood outside, criticised the EU and – without seeming to realise it – become secondary players in the EU, let alone the old imperial world they seem to long for.
The Brexit vote shocked me though. I believed the bookies. I thought they’d go to the edge and pull back, as the Scots did when given the chance for independence. But it has happened. And even if the Brits find some way to back out of it now, their reputation in Europe is damaged irreparably.
Which is why Great Britain will become Little England. They will get their independence back, but they will cease to be an integral part of the largest market in the world. Companies wanting to be part of Europe will expand their European subsidiaries rather than their English ones. The Brits will lose their cheap skilled European work force from Eastern European countries as they close their borders to immigration. They won’t be consulted or counted in the big political decisions made between China, the US and the EU. The pound and UK stock market will probably drop as financial and economic uncertainties prevail, at least in the short term. Brits will find all that international travel they love to ‘cheap’ European places will become more expensive, as will imported consumer products.
The strangest part really is that the leaders of Brexit campaign have suddenly departed the stage, when victory was theirs. This political vacuum – to be filled by unknown future leaders not particularly committed to Brexit themselves – is bizarre and not helpful in building a strong, clear new direction.
Will Little England be better than Great Britain?
But it may not all be bad. Being a little country can be good, so long as you don’t want to be a big player. Look at Switzerland, Sweden, Australia. A falling pound should encourage investment and tourism in the long term. Foreigners can buy up the country. Maybe ‘hot’ international funds from Russia, the Middle East, international despots will flow in to buy property and assets that have suddenly become much cheaper (though they have already done this, since the UK refused to join the Euro currency zone). Tourism hordes will descend on this unique olde worlde place with its royalty still centre stage. International students seeking English language study might choose England over the US, Canada and Australia.
Whether these are the impacts you want is moot, however. Most countries really want a strong currency, enabling them to buy what they want overseas and have cheap imports.
Transitioning from ‘Great’ to ‘Little’
But if you have been a ‘big’ player on the world stage, it’s not easy to adjust to being a small player. And being independent sounds powerful, but it’s not, in this interconnected world. To be powerful, you can’t withdraw. You have to interact with others, play the main game, not a secondary game. Compromise, not take your bat and ball and go home. Be diplomatic, not throw sand in the face of your peers.
So, Great Britain, welcome to being Little England. Being insignificant in the world. You could have been powerful, but you chose not to be. You could have been admired, but you chose not to be. It’s a long way back to the top when you are on the way down. Just ask the Greeks, Romans, Norwegians and Austro-Hungarians.