Brexit And Me

I was asked by someone the other day why I hadn’t shared any views about Brexit on social media, where I am normally pretty active. The reason, I told him, is because I realised early on that there was no point.

I’ve watched, from the sidelines, as friends have fallen out with each other, families have been cast asunder, and it dawned on me quickly that nobody would move from their positions. They were as entrenched as the troops during the first world war. However keen and considered the argument, within a few comments, people were being rude to each other and metaphorically shouting, with spittle bursting forth from their mouths.

I wanted no part of that.

But, what, I hear you ask, are my views on Brexit? Now that it is finally happening, I’m happy to share them with anyone, although I hope, having “lost,” I will be spared the arguments and counter arguments. This piece isn’t to create a debate, it’s merely an opportunity to corral my thoughts, both for myself, and for anyone else who may be interested in them.

Before I explain my views on Brexit, let me first tell you how I feel about it on a personal level:

I am completely, utterly and totally devastated by the fact that Britain is leaving the European Union tomorrow.

I am a very proud European, and have been since I understood what that means. I have two businesses, one based in the UK and one based in Spain. Our clients are in both of those countries but also all across Europe. We sell products and services across the EU and into UK.

One of my children lives in the mainland of Spain and is much more Spanish than British, the other three live in the UK, but have very strong links to Spain.

As head of a family and as a business owner, I am the epitome of the European dream — living freely between the countries of Europe and trading products and services without barriers to most of them. It is currently my RIGHT to do so.

Julie and I once had a dream that in later life, we’d spend 6 months in Italy, 6 months in France and so on, exploring the parts of Europe we’ve touched briefly, but felt a desire to find out more about. That dream is now impossible.

Unless…….

Unless we switch to Spanish nationality, as we are entitled to.

That’s a phrase that’s very easy to type, but much harder to contemplate — especially for me. My mother was born in India, and I was born in Hong Kong. From the earliest age, she instilled in me a pride in being British, and at the same time, a massive paranoia that it could be taken away from me one day. She was totally convinced that if my passport ever expired, I’d have a nightmare getting it renewed, and the legacy is still with me, years after her death. “Michael, have you checked your passport recently? If you have less than a year on it, renew it now.”

Of course, becoming a Spanish citizen would solve most of the problems I’ve outlined above, but what about the future? When we’re in our 70’s, what if we wanted to return to the UK to be closer to the family there? That door would be closed to us.

It’s such a big decision.

My views on Brexit

I have to take you back in time. I first arrived in the UK to live in 1973 at the age of twelve. Remember, I was born in Hong Kong, and remember too, that my parents had given me a very strong sense of what it meant to be British and what a wonderful country it was.

When the day came and my father retired, I arrived in England and I was horrified! After living in the supercharged atmosphere of Hong Kong, where everyone works all the time and everything works so efficiently, England seemed to me to be teetering on the brink of collapse. There was only electricity on a few days a week, rubbish was collecting in the streets, and pretty much everybody was on strike. Television (important when you are 12) was largely in black and white, and only on for a few hours a day, and the Prime Minister was begging for handouts from other countries.

I felt betrayed. “My” country was not how it had been sold to me, and quite honestly, all I wanted to do was go home to Hong Kong and my 24 hour a day colour TV, air conditioning, clean streets and functioning services.

But that wasn’t an option. I soldiered on. Britain had joined the common market in 1973 and that then became the EEC and finally in the 1990’s the EU. Markets across Europe opened up, with the promise of free trade in the world’s largest block. Britain’s prosperity improved dramatically.

I was working for Toyota by the late 80’s. We’d been hamstrung by tariffs for years and the Japanese manufacturers had a “Gentleman’s agreement” not to take more than 10% of the European car market, or face even higher tariffs.

As soon as free trade within the block was announced, Nissan, Honda and Toyota decided to open plants within the union, finally taking away the restrictions on sales we’d lived with for years. Britain got almost all of the business, because of huge sweeteners offered by the Thatcher government, designed to ensure we got the factories and the employees. It was my first taste of the power of having open, frictionless trade across borders, and boy did it help Britain’s prosperity.

I ended up working at Volkswagen Group during their glory years when we achieved huge growth across Europe, inspired by our charismatic leader Ferdinand Piech. I’d regularly travel from Berlin to Barcelona and from Munich to Milton Keynes, enjoying my personal freedom of movement and my company’s freedom to sell our products wherever we wanted to within the EU, benefitting from massive economies of scale by manufacturing at all the factories across the continent and then shipping everything “just in time,” with no customs issues or tariffs. We took the group to the status of global player in a few short years, collecting Bentley, Seat, Skoda and Lamborghini along the way.

Here’s my point. My view is that Britain became prosperous and successful in those years BECAUSE of the EU, not in spite of it. And it’s a position nobody seemed to address in any of the debates on the subject around the original referendum.

I hope to be proved wrong on this, but as someone who has been at the top of some very large companies, and who has now run a few of my own in the last 30 years, my considered opinion is that choosing to walk away from the best free trade deal in the history of the planet is a monumental mistake.

I find it totally bizarre that the deal that has been done is being touted as some kind of victory. On key point after key point, Britain’s trading position has moved backwards from the promises that were made — frictionless trade, having no border between Northern Ireland and the UK are just two examples. And why, oh why, was there so much focus on fishing, when it represents 0.1% of GDP, while at the same time, there is no mention of services in the deal, when they represent 80%? It was a classic bait and switch. Could it have something to do with the fact that any deal on services would have to include banking? And any deal on banking would have resulted in the EU insisting on UK signing up to the tax avoidance directive, which becomes law……..

…….the day after Britain leaves the EU.

And let’s talk about the famous “trade deals” with the rest of the world often touted as some glorious opportunity. People keep telling me “it will all be fine, we’ll have new trade deals with America, Canada and Australia!” What everyone forgets is that a “trade deal” means absolutely nothing. The politicians who sign them don’t sell anything, they just reach an agreement that certain products CAN be sold.

For a trade deal to be worth a cent, businesses are required to sell products or services. That requires a sales network, a distribution network, legal and fiscal support in country that understands the different rules and more.

Excuse my language, but the UK could sign the most amazing free trade deal with America, with no tariffs and no customs checks, but that’s fuck all use to my business, because I don’t actually have any customers in America, it would cost a fortune to get my products to customers there, I don’t know how much tax to charge and I’d be terrified of litigation if something went wrong. My customers are here in Europe, on my doorstep. I’ve spent years nurturing them and learning how to do business with them. And guess what? Most of our sales to those customers are classified as services. Here I am, only a few hours from Brexit actually happening, and I honestly don’t yet understand what the new rules are if our UK company sells a service to an EU client. At least I’m in good company, because neither does anybody else.

The issue isn’t limited to small businesses like mine. I know of a large business that looked into the costs of starting to sell their product in the US or Australia. The MD, who is a friend of mine, was practically weeping. His company, despite a multi million pound turnover, couldn’t even contemplate funding the creation of a sales and distribution network across The Atlantic. In fact, his business, which he has painstakingly built for many years, currently trades all across Europe, but he’s been losing clients steadily since the Brexit vote. His clients tell him “We’re really sorry, but we‘re nervous about supplies getting through in time with all the customs checks, and we can’t afford to risk losing supply of your product in our factories, and it’s going to increase our administrative costs to continue to work with you, so we’re switching all our orders to our French / Italian / German partners.” His only option may be to close down and retire. He’ll be fine, his staff will struggle.

So there you have it. A tale of doom and despondency? Perhaps not. I really do believe Britain will suffer a great deal of pain over the next 10 years, but I honestly don’t wish it. A large part of me hopes the country will find a way forward that works for someone other than the parasites who have gained the most from the whole debacle — the speculators and the politicians who are busy building their fortune by shorting UK PLC. I hope the shocking racism, which I thought had long been buried, but reared its ugly head over the last few years, dissipates once again, and I hope the wounds of Brexit will be healed, with friends and families coming back together.

And what about me? Writing this has been cathartic. I’m pleased I’ve finally been able to splurge out my thoughts on the subject, without interruption or argument.

What’s the next step for me? I really don’t know. I still have a very hard decision to make about my future nationality.

I just don’t want to be a citizen of nowhere, with my rights to live in Spain depending on the good nature of my hosts, rather than on my rights as a citizen of the EU. It may be a notional thing while relations between Britain and Spain remain cordial, but what if that changes? There are already EU citizens in the UK who are not being granted a right to stay, even when they have been married to a Brit for years and have British children.

From tomorrow, my RIGHT to live in my home and run my business here in Lanzarote will end. From that point on, I’ll be here, like any other “third country citizen” only for as long as Spain is happy for me to remain. I’ll have to watch how much time I spend in other EU countries, and I’ll need to make sure I keep my foreigner’s ID Card up to date so I can come and go to Spain as I please.

I can hear my mother now: “Michael, have you checked your Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero recently? If it has less than a year to run, renew it now.”