The paint is still drying on the United Kingdom’s public vote in favor of Brexit — the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union — but every industry wants to know what this literally world-changing decision could mean. That most especially includes meetings and conventions, which have taken advantage of the trade agreements and open borders that exist among EU nations. The day after the vote, I talked to Robin Lokerman, group president of Geneva-based MCI, about the Brexit’s potential impact. (For another take on the developing situation, see our interview with IAPCO’s Sarah Storie-Pugh.)
What might this mean for international meetings? Will there be any immediate effects?
I don’t think immediate effects. I think some of the European and global meetings that are doing UK locations or European locations might look differently at the UK, because it is less predictable. The pound is going through a huge dive right now, but that will come back again, right? So there’s more currency volatility with the UK pound that will have an immediate impact on some people.
Immediately, the laws in the UK won’t change. They will negotiate a new relationship with Europe, and I think that will actually iron out. But the volatility of what’s happening right now, the uncertainty — that will have an impact. People will probably go to places where they have more certainty, and the European base is more certain than the UK alone. There will be companies or associations that would like to establish themselves in Europe and use the UK as a European platform; I think they would not immediately use the UK right now, but would look at other cities.
Do you see a ripple effect on meetings in other EU countries?
I don’t think so, unless other countries start having referendums or votes to leave the EU. I think what is actually going to happen is that the EU is going to take a step back, get much better at communicating, and also focus much more on the key issues.
The UK needs Europe, Europe needs the UK. And although right now there’s a lot of leave-taking, over time, they need to come close together again.
But there’s also national politicians. In a structure like the EU, people elect national politicians, and anything that goes bad gets blamed on Europe and not the national politicians. That’s the big problem. It takes ownership and responsibility of the national governments to sell what is decided at the European level.
The UK has always been kind of a special case within Europe. I’m personally sad, because I think the UK in Europe plays a very important role in being more of a free-enterprise, entrepreneurial-driven culture and society. Germany is a more rule- and government-driven culture and society, and I think the UK was a useful balance and I’m sad that it’s not going to be there in the long-term future. But again, these things will work themselves out. The UK needs Europe, Europe needs the UK. And although right now there’s a lot of leave-taking, over time, they need to come close together again.
Were you surprised by the results of the vote?
Actually, not that much. There’s a growing nationalistic concern everywhere in the world after you get recession and globalization, etc., etc. There’s a lot of disconnected people. When you put difficult political decisions to a public vote — where one vote counts as one vote, as a referendum is — it is very easy for demagogic people to misuse that, and get people to make a choice. They really don’t know what they’re voting for at the end. It was pretty close, right? It was 52 [percent] to 48 [percent]. It could have gone the other way. It’s a million people that make a difference. So I’m disappointed, but I’m not that surprised.
Has the EU been good for Europe in terms of hosting international meetings?
Oh, absolutely. The free movement of people, all one currency, no more exchange rates — that is a huge benefit. Even the fact people can travel across borders without passports in many cases, it’s just so much easier. And people are looking at knowledge across borders, which is the basis of our industry. I think for the meetings and events industry, the whole trend towards more nationalistic views — not just in Europe but also in Asia and definitely also the U.S. — I believe is not good for our industry. Our industry is all about bringing people together, exchanging with each other, and the bigger that base is — of free engagement, of exchange — the richer the meetings and events are that we organize.
It was pretty close, right? It was 52 to 48%. It could have gone the other way. It’s a million people that make a difference. So I’m disappointed, but I’m not that surprised.
We benefit from a more open, transparent world, rather than cutting down bridges or building walls. I don’t think that’s in the long-term interest of our industry. In a sense, the UK is building a wall, unfortunately. At least that’s the perception now. We then need to see how high will this wall be. Will it be something you step over, or will it be something you have to jump over, or will it be a very high wall? That is now what needs to come out in the next few months to years.