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The idle musings of an expatriate on Brexit

BC&C Partner Usha Casewell offers a Hong Kong perspective on the UK’s historic decision to leave the EU.

Hong Kong, 1 July 2016: On 30th June 1997, as the last Governor of Hong Kong, the British Prime Minister and Prince Charles sailed out of Hong Kong after handing the territory back to China, many Hong Kong people experienced a huge sense of grief and despondency reflected by the incessant rain which fell for several days afterwards. Similarly, almost 19 years later, on 24th June 2016, as we in Hong Kong woke up to the unexpected news that the UK had voted to leave the EU, there was a huge outpouring of grief and despair accompanied by shock and anger. The usual phrases hit the headlines and Facebook such as “the lid has been lifted off Pandora’s box”, “a madness that will surely lead to disaster”, “Armageddon”, “this is the beginning of the end” and “the breakdown of European peace”.

Naturally people could not believe what had happened. My friends were “gutted” or “sick at heart”. Most of all they were they were outraged and disappointed. Both in 1997 and in 2016 there was a physical and mental reaction to a fundamental and seemingly irrevocable change. The feelings run deep.

All through the day following the Referendum, the world was just stunned. “Oh Britain what have you done?” There was no sense of any jubilation, just sheer horror. Over the weekend waves of panic swept over England, Europe and even Hong Kong. The huge surprise in Britain was incomprehensible. People had voted for Brexit, not believing it would actually happen. It was merely a protest vote. Many who were unsure about how to vote were quite clearly swayed by the endless mantra from the Leave campaign that “we need to take back control”.

Yet it looks as if no one is in control. The Conservative and Labour parties are falling apart and we are exposed to a daily barrage of mixed messages. Even the Leave campaigners are now distancing themselves from outrageous claims made in the run-up during which there was a nasty, heated exchange of emotional verbiage. The only sensible discussion seemed to come from the Remain side. Brexit never was a convincing option.

Now that the Brexiters (if they really exist) think that they are free, what freedoms are they actually looking at after 43 years of being part of Europe? Britain was offered an opportunity in 1975 to vote to leave but chose to remain in the Common Market as it was then known, I do not remember such high emotion at that time, and over the years the country has benefitted from being part of the EU.

Historically, Britain has always been calling for freedom from its “marauding” European neighbours. Think back to the invasion of the Romans. They fought against Julius Caesar. In fact the Caswellian Tribe of Mercer (from whom the Casewells descend) were a part of the rebellion. In the first century Boadicea, a formidable Celtic Queen, with her warrior daughters, fought to keep Britain free of the Romans and led a fierce revolt. As the centuries rolled by, we resented the French Plantagenets, only to be overcome by the Normans in 1066. Eventually Henry VIII, took the country completely away from the then ruling European Empire so that he would be free to marry his mistress. Yes, Britons have always had an undercurrent of rebelliousness against their close neighbours and jealously guard their island borders.

Relatively recently, in a huge spurt of strength and energy, Britain started to colonise various parts of the world and profited greatly by this, hence Hong Kong’s unique status. How the country loved to show off the pink areas of the world map in which it was sovereign. The payback obviously came in the 20th century when Britain started to lose its touch and its crown and had to offer citizenship to the children of the British Empire.

I cannot remember much of what happened in 1973 as I was very young but it seems that Britain willingly and voluntarily joined the EEC/Common Market. It became easier to go on holiday in Europe and we started to enjoy delicious food – real pasta dishes as opposed to tinned spaghetti hoops in sweet tomato sauce served on toast. Olive oil once used for medicinal purposes only was now readily available for culinary purposes and even garlic was embraced. Most of us remember a time of plenty after 1973. Granted, some EU regulations were irritating but, on the whole, life was good with Europe. The peace and co-operation between the European countries made us put behind the two World Wars. We recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War. Who would want to go back to that era?

Britain has done well from being part of Europe after its empire collapsed. Where will it go now? Does it have the resources to be great again? Can it go back to its pre-EU days? The confusion and procrastination displayed by the UK Government suggest not.

Brexit illustration

The UK's decision to leave the EU after more than 40 years sent shockwaves around the world.

Back in Hong Kong expatriate friends are unanimously horrified. What does it mean for us? To begin with, with the drop in the value of sterling, Hong Kong dollars buy more pounds and so we can manage our UK expenses at a lower cost. In fact, I was already at the bank on the Friday afternoon following the Referendum looking into this and there, live on TV, was David Cameron announcing his resignation.

There are hopes that the local and China financial markets will gain from the chaos and panic in England. I have already seen news of a Hong Kong company buying a hotel in London for £70 million in the aftermath of Brexit.

Any hopes of a referendum in Hong Kong have been dashed as China can simply point to Brexit as a reason not to have one. The same goes for democracy. Even now the news is about the shock waves from Brexit reaching all the way to China.

It has been interesting to note the response of British children raised in Hong Kong. They are global minded yet secure in their identity as “English” and “Europeans”. They grew up comfortable in their cultural identity and able to mix freely with children of various nationalities. My own children now living in England have a natural affinity with Europeans. They have spent time working in Europe and want to continue to do so. Their right to do just that has been pulled away suddenly like a rug from underneath their feet. Their reaction has been echoed by many of their generation. “This is terrible”, “This is not the world we grew up in”.

Boase Cohen & Collins is part of the International Alliance of Law Firms which has a large European cohort and anticipates that the business will continue as usual. There will of course by much more work for corporate and international lawyers.

Brexit has been likened to a spouse calling an end to a marriage desiring to take up with an old flame regardless of the consequences. However, the old flame has long since gone.

A divorce is not just about bringing an end to a relationship. Arrangements for children and distribution of assets need to be addressed. One of the most important principles in family law is the welfare of the children – to look after those who are vulnerable and most at risk. Also, resolution is not always achieved through acrimonious action. A collaborative practice or mediation can go a long way to alleviate the pain and expense of the breakdown of relationship. Britain, if it does continue with its threatened exit, and the EU will do well to employ some of these practices as a way to move forward and limit the damage.

The burning question now, of course, is will the British Government take steps to leave the EU? David Cameron will not. It is unlikely that his successor will. Maybe there will be no Brexit and it was, in the end, a futile exercise with disastrous consequence and no winners.

On the whole, Britain is better off in the EU than outside. Even if it activates Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, it will take two years to leave and 25 years to reap any potential rewards from Brexit. Is it worth the trouble? Has it been? A huge storm in a tea cup has been created at the insistence of the far right and nobody is happy. The problem is that the disaster is not confined to Britain but has spilled out into Europe and other parts of the world – just read the business news. Maybe the economic world as we know it will be permanently affected. Recession in the UK is predicted to ripple out beyond its borders.

Hong Kong, in contrast, currently appears stable and secure. The sun continues to shine and it is business as usual for us.