Ramifications, fear dominate talk after UK vote


If residents of the European Union have anything in common, it's the life-changing decision they've been talking about since yesterday, will continue to talk about this weekend, and will dominate their conversations for months to come.

"The prime minister resigned while I was getting ready for work this morning. That's not something you hear every day," said Joe Schorge, a London-based investor and Cheshire, Mass., native.

He works for a venture capital investment firm called Isomer Capital, but said, "It was hard to get any work done today.

"It's hard to explain the feeling on the street. People have been calling each other and emailing each other. Much of business ground to a halt today."

This is how Schorge described his reaction to Friday morning's news that a marginal majority of more than 17.4 million residents of the United Kingdom voted by referendum to exit the economic and political single market governing system known as the European Union.

Through the referendum — popularly referred to as "Brexit" — a total of 51.9 percent of residents voted to leave, versus the 48.1 percent, or approximately 16.1 million, who had hoped to stay within the partnership of the EU. Across the UK, it was only in Northern Ireland, London and Scotland that the majority of residents voted to remain.

Berkshire County resident and north London-born writer, journalist and broadcaster, Simon Winchester of Sandisfield, Mass., found himself in a similar state as Schorge on Friday, while visiting the region to conduct research for his new book.

He spoke to The Eagle by phone from a small town southwest town called Teddington. "I was in London last night, having dinner with friends who all voted to remain. ... I woke up at 6 o'clock to find a world quite changed. I was completely stunned."

While some facts of the decision are concrete — the tally of votes, Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement he will step down in October, the suddenly sharp and dramatic downward tumble in global stock value and the British pound — other effects are anyone's guesswork.

"In England, it's a big economic forest," Schorge said.

In an emailed response, Jane Iredale, the North London-born founder and president of the Great Barrington, Mass.-based Iredale Mineral Cosmetics company, said of the referendum vote: "I'm surprised at the result, but I don't believe anyone can really predict what is going to happen now economically. I think it's almost a certainty that Scotland will hold another referendum and vote to leave the UK since they voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. The other issue is what will happen to Ireland since once again there will be a border. There are so many ramifications that it's hard to draw any conclusions."

In the coming months, parliamentary procedure and negotiations will come into play before anything's made official and binding stemming from the Brexit referendum. Meanwhile, fueled by fears of risks and unknowns, economists and financial experts will track any financial fallout, which can include continuing fluctuations in currency and stock values, the volume and impact on business and communities to be determined.

"Here, we're facing an extended term of uncertainty," said Bill Schmick, a registered investment adviser representative with Berkshire Money Management in Pittsfield, who has been closely monitoring market trends in the Brexit climate.

He said that, while the indicators of economic impact were there, they were largely dismissed, as with other financial crises. "Brexit is an issue that comes close to what happened in 2008 and 2009," Schmick said, referring to the most contemporary economic recession.

Beyond finance, Iredale added that she felt the vote "came down to the immigration issue," referring to the EU's rules permitting free migration between member nations, much as citizens of the United States are free to move about the country without paperwork, credentials or border crossings. Reflecting sentiments that exist in many other countries, members of the so-called Leave campaign in the UK argued that the EU's immigration policies are too lax.

According to a University of Oxford briefing published in January, the foreign-born population in the U.K. more than doubled, from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million, between 1993 and 2014. During the same period, the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million.

The rhetoric is similar to what has emerged in the U.S., in the throes of an equally tense presidential election year.

Said Berkshire County resident Rhonda Serre via a tweet seeking referendum vote reactions, "isolationism, anti-immigration, mislead nationalism destroying EU and UK. Financial markets in ruin, hope US learns from this."

Williamstown resident, Steve Dew said, "No one should underestimate the fury of voters who have chafed under these neo-liberal policies for decades. When the voters are in an anti-establishment mood, as they were in the UK, and left-wing, redistributive populism of the [Bernie] Sanders variety is not on the menu; then they tend to choose reactionary politicians (and their policies)."

Simon Winchester and Joe Schorge also see the Brexit process unraveling a cautionary tale for the U.S.

"Even though it seems to be unrelated, this is a warning of what might happen if America votes for [Donald] Trump," Winchester said.

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (aka Ukip) and previously cited Trump supporter, has been characterized as a similarly outspoken far-right figure fueling the Leave campaign with nationalist language that many say greatly influenced Prime Minister Cameron's decision to allow the referendum vote.

At a press conference in Scotland on Friday, where Trump has golf courses, the U.S. presidential candidate said in response to Leave campaign backers, "They want to take a lot of things back. They want to be able to have a country again. So, I think you're going have this happen more and more. I really believe that, and I think it's happening in the United States."

Winchester said that as in the U.S., people in different regions of the UK are divided, noting that "scare-mongering" in the press versus calmly presenting facts isn't helping.

"The British people made a very bad decision and made it for emotional reasons," said Schorge. "They think this protest vote will fix what they're upset with in the EU, but now it might make matters worse."

Moving forward, Winchester said, "We're all interested to know who will stride into David Cameron's shoes," since that successor will be integral in leading any transitions between the UK and EU.

Meanwhile, he expects emotions to continue to run high as Friday's decision is digested. "We're not talking a breakdown of social order, but it will spill out in arguments in pubs."

Emotions aside, he said now is the time for not just Britons, but the world to look at how policies, politics and perspectives can have lasting social impacts.

"Let's analyze [the situation] more carefully," Winchester said. "These are very serious times."

Reporter Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.


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