Sleepwalking Into a Brexit Disaster

June 14, 2016, 11:44 AM UTC
United Kingdom could exit (brexit) European union
Photograph by Peter Hermus — Getty Images/iStockphoto

World stock markets continue to slide this morning in response to polls showing the British may vote June 23 to exit the European Union.

Brexit is also dominating Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit, taking place in London this morning. “This country is sleepwalking toward disaster,” Miriam Gonzalez, a Spanish lawyer who is married to former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, told the group. “In my life, I have never gone through another moment like this.”

Yesterday, Brexit was the top topic at a discussion I moderated among 35 women who sit on the boards of major global corporations. The session was off the record, so I can’t report specific comments. But the group was broadly representative of global business, and the general view was that uncertainty over Brexit has already led many companies to cut back global investment plans. The uncertainty is not confined to the U.K. and Europe. And it is unlikely to end June 23, regardless of the vote’s outcome. A number of the women expressed broader concern about rising nationalism across the globe, and several referenced the graduation speech given last month by GE’s Jeff Immelt, signaling an end to seventy years of globalization. (CEO Daily reported on the speech here.)

Underlying these trends is a general revolt against the elite – with business leaders as well as political leaders included in that tent. That’s the real lesson of the Brexit vote, as well as the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. And it’s probably the biggest challenge leaders of large global companies face in the years ahead. They need to find a way to restore the public’s trust in their businesses and in the global economic system, or see that system continue to erode. No small task.