Friday, June 24, 2016

What Brexit Means to an American Abroad

When I went to sleep last night, it looked like it was all going to be okay. The earliest reports indicated a narrow margin of victory for Remain, buoyed by a dramatic pro-Remain response in Gibralter. Even Nigel Farage, the bombastic face of the Leave movement, had come close to delivering a concession. When I woke up this morning, the world had changed.

I'm not British. I'm not even European. But the announcement that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union has huge implications for me.

When I first arrived in Luxembourg in September, it seemed like everyone -- my housemates, my students, my lycée coworkers -- found nothing funnier than asking their new token American about the upcoming presidential election. "So," they would whisper conspiratorially, "how do you feel about Donald Trump?" I would roll my eyes and play along: "Great. Love him. I'm so glad that's what you associate me with." Sometimes, the conversation would turn to politics, with me attempting to explain the concept of primaries and caucuses (or, 'why my country's election is dominating your country's news 13 months before it happens'). Sometimes, we'd discuss our fears about the sobering rise of xenophobia and far-right parties in our respective countries. But most often, we'd move on. Because, you know, it wasn't actually going to happen.

Over the past ten months, things have changed. Within the Republican Party, seventeen candidates has turned to one and politicians who once scoffed at Trump's candidacy are now making their own reluctant endorsements. Meanwhile, the friends who teased me about Donald Trump have now watched and responded in shock as far-right movements gained traction in their own countries. The Luxembourgish coworkers who once began conversations by asking "So ... what about Trump?" have fallen silent on the issue. (Are they worried that I'll burst into tears if forced to confront my country's failings?) And my response has changed. I no longer laugh off references to the November 2016 election and to the increasingly contentious, nationalistic, and xenophobic rhetoric that accompanies it. Because it's not funny anymore.

When I first heard of it, Brexit seemed like nothing more than a fringe movement -- a crazy idea with a crazy name, brought forth by the radical right and destined to attract little attention before failing. Much like the concept of Donald Trump as the presidential nominee of a major political party, it seemed truly inconceivable. I shrugged it off. Even as it became clear that a Brexit was a legitimate political concern, I didn't let myself worry. Given those who opposed it in the UK and abroad -- President ObamaJ.K. Rowling! John Oliver! -- it seemed evident to me that cooler heads would prevail, that the obvious merits of Britain's EU membership would outweigh the criticisms, that the UK would ultimately decide to stay. In discussions with students and housemates, where it became an increasingly popular topic of conversation, Brexit was almost a joke. Because, you know, they weren't actually going to do it.

But they did. This morning, it has become all too painfully obvious that Brexit is not and, in fact, never has been a joke. The result of the referendum -- 17,410,742 to 16,141,241 -- was read aloud on the BBC. The value of the pound plummeted overnight, dropping to the lowest rate in over three decades. David Cameron announced his resignation, perhaps inevitable under the circumstances, as Prime Minister. Political groups in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where citizens voted overwhelmingly to Remain, have called for new independence referendums. The implications, for citizens of both the United Kingdom and the European Union, are numerous and I have no doubt that the next days and weeks will bring a number of major changes to the political and economic landscape.

In the meantime, however, I want to make things about me.

Of course this referendum has implications for Americans abroad (including those planning more-affordable-than-ever trips to London). But we should all be paying attention. Because Brexit is about so much more than membership in the European Union. At its core, Brexit is proof that cooler heads do not always prevail. It is proof that fear is a powerful motivator and nationalism, a powerful manipulator. It is proof that an idea that seems radical, crazy, and downright impossible can, under the right conditions, become reality. And it's definitely not funny.


  1. Well stated! I couldn't agree more.

  2. Elisabeth,

    First off, let me say thank you for your blog! It has been incredible to read about your experiences abroad through the Fulbright ETA position. I am applying for an ETA position myself. I have gone back and forth for several months about whether to apply for France, Belgium, or Luxembourg. After reading through all your posts, I have officially decided on Luxembourg and I couldn't be more thrilled! I was wondering if there is any way I could e-mail you to ask you a few more questions about your experience and maybe get some tips on how to write the Statement of Grant Purpose, which I am currently struggling with. If not, that's okay too! Thanks so much!

  3. Your W&M education has served you well. You are the well articulated individual I had always sought to be but didn't quite reach. I could not be a prouder parent than I am today. Your insight and analysis is incredible. You are a future world leader!