Just a couple of hundred miles on an American highway.
A breezy evening even though it’s summer. Half past eight on the clock, Pacific Daylight Time. Four friends on a road trip to Los Angeles. A world away, it’s morning in England. Or is it? Suddenly, a phone rings. It is Selene’s (who also happens to be my CTO, or chief technology officer, in real life). A hot blonde, she always has a grin on her face — and the one she has now I will never forget:
“So, they’re out? Like, for real?” She gasps at the news of Brexit, looking at us with eyes as dead as bright blue eyes can possibly be. This piece of news lands on us suddenly, just like the fast food restaurant that had appeared exactly in the middle of nowhere a couple of minutes before. But this unexpected development is definitely not as comforting. I take out my phone, open the Facebook app and decide to share my thoughts on the spur of the moment:
“If just a few months ago I had been told I would be in the middle of nowhere while receiving a piece of news like this, I would have surely not believed it in my wildest dreams. We are just four economists in a gas station in California, staring speechless at our phones, calling home, checking the main headlines. It just does not feel real. …
The day has arrived. This will probably be the major macroeconomic event of the decade, and one of the biggest of the last 50 years. … I read young people have massively voted remain. Therefore, the result makes me even sicker, because they, and us, are the ones who will have to live the longer with these effects.”
I take a deep breath and try to look at the big picture. What will this mean in everyday life? A question I am still asking myself as a European almost every day. Not only have I always been used to visa-free traveling, but I also have lived in London for a year. My generation takes for granted not only the possibility of traveling freely around Europe but also moving anywhere indefinitely almost as freely. We are called the “Erasmus Generation” — referring to the European Union student exchange program — for a reason. I look at my travel companions, three girls like me enjoying what is most American on earth — a burger in a gas station amid a random state landscape. And I cannot help but think:
“This is not what our grandfathers and grandmothers have fought for and, as my classical education tends to make me think, this is not what the Greeks meant to teach us — to force us to stare at the ultimate victory of ignorance and of fear. As for myself, I never liked boundaries, and I will still hope, one day, to see the rise of the most powerful state ever — the United States of Europe….”
Speaking of the United States, I consulted my friend Peter Hjertsson, who has a master’s in international business like me. He’s a big foreign policy expert, half-Swedish and half-American (out of Michigan).
“As an American” he says, “I think relations will get better due to Brexit, as the UK will try to lean heavily on the U.S.” Then looking at the dark side, he adds, “As a European, I fear that the UK will see a decrease in travel. Fewer people will want to go, because things are crazy. And companies will want to leave London” and move to Amsterdam, Berlin or his hometown, Stockholm.
What Peter, my colleagues in London and I foresee as the most likely scenario is that UK will go in for a softer Brexit — where it would expect no EU trade tariffs but where it will also tend to close borders to EU nationals, especially workers. The morning after the referendum, the passport sign at Heathrow Airport already read “UK/EU Passports.” It might be possible that when Brexit really does happen, the UK will opt for a waiver program for vacationers — most likely similar to ESTA, which expedites identifying those who may be able to waive the U.S. visa requirement. Speaking of which: Will Europeans “gain” visa-free travel in the UK and lose ESTA for the States? Quite a depressing perspective for us young Europeans.
All in all, as Peter would say, “I will still go (to the UK), because I still love London.” As for me, I almost want to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech instead, more loudly than on that day in June in the middle of California, hoping that our sons and daughters, too, will feel part of a second Erasmus Generation and say proudly: “Ich bin Europäische.”