Sitting in Gatwick’s departure terminal on the afternoon of Friday 24 June felt a bit like leaving a car crash before the ambulance arrived.
Hours earlier I was standing in front of a plunging sterling-dollar chart reporting live that Sunderland voted Leave by a much wider margin than expected. The journalist in me was anxious to stay in the UK and witness the reaction on the street, but before the morning rush hour set in, I was packing my bags for a weeklong trip across the continent.
First stop Italy. The reaction was muted, barring some sensational newspaper headlines. A taxi driver in Rome said: “For me, it is good news. For too long we’ve been giving too much money to the EU with nothing in return.” But when asked whether Italy would be next through the door, he insisted “no way”. A museum guide shared his sentiment. “We are fed up with the EU, but for Italy there is no going back.”
The most passionate replies were heard in France. “It’s funny for us,” said a hotel receptionist in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence. “Nobody thought it would happen. But if they want to leave, they should hurry up.” A French taxi driver told me: “I’m very happy. Politicians have been wasting our money. They don’t have proper jobs. I’d rather see a businessman like Elon Musk in power.” But when asked if France would ever leave the EU, the driver laughed off the suggestion.
The overriding message: we are proud to be European but we are fed up with our leaders. The bemusement, at times admiration, expressed for the British rebellion was a far cry from the outrage voiced in the official quarters in Brussels.
On the sidelines of the EU leaders meeting, I asked European Parliament president Martin Schulz whether Brussels shared any blame for not taking the Brexit risk seriously. He stared me down as if I had been planted by Nigel Farage. My question came in response to the shock I felt at the lack of humility on display. At a time when Eurosceptic fever is running high, I was stunned by an unwillingness of Messrs Schulz, Juncker and Tusk to take ownership of the failings of their institutions.
Even in the nastiest divorce, it’s a normal part of the healing process for both parties to examine their own failings. There is no other woman in this divorce – the UK is not running away with the United States, or not yet at least – which makes the call for introspection even more relevant.
The conclusion of the EU Council meeting in Brussels meant it was time to pack my bags for the VivaTechnology Conference in Paris. Nothing like “Pollyanna” techies to wake you from the post Brexit blues. But no joy. A host of Silicon Valley giants were in attendance to remind Europe where America stood on the debate. Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt stated: “We prefer for Europe to be one single market, fragmentation is bad for entrepreneurs.” Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales lamented the shift toward populism globally.
It was the Publicis chief executive, Maurice Levy, however, who lent a breath of fresh air to the discussion. “The fact that there are populists is not the problem, it’s that nobody is listening to them,” he said.
That line stuck with me. How is it possible that we live in the most connected, digitally aware period in history and people aren’t being heard? It’s human nature to gravitate to smaller circles. Look no further than the halls of Brussels and tech conferences for evidence of elites building silos. But we should expect more from the politicians who are elected with a mandate to serve the people who pay their way.
What’s done is done. The UK is going to leave the EU. But if leaders sitting across the English Channel want to do what’s best for the kids in this divorce, they should listen to their citizens and work toward a smarter, more accountable union. Now that the most polarising figures in the Leave campaign have taken a bow from their parties' top posts, it’s time to work towards reconciliation. Take a page out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s textbook and “consciously uncouple.”