Brexit Bombast and a West That’s Turning in on Itself

June 15, 2016, 1:04 PM UTC
A Guardsman faints at Horseguards Parade for the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony in central London
A Guardsman faints at Horseguards Parade for the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony in central London, Britain June 11, 2016. Trooping the Colour is a ceremony to honour Queen Elizabeth's official birthday. The Queen celebrates her 90th birthday this year. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez - RTX2FMUL
Dylan Martinez — Reuters

I’m writing this note on a plane home from London, having spent two days at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit just as Britain and the world were waking up to the very real possibility that the U.K. could vote to leave the European Union on June 23.

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun drove the point home with a front page editorial yesterday headlined “BeLEAVE in Britain.” The Sun said the campaign to remain in the EU was driven by “the corporate establishment, arrogant europhiles and foreign banks” and called a vote to leave “our chance to make Britain even greater, recapture our democracy, to preserve the values and culture we are rightly proud of.” The echoes of Donald Trump’s campaign – and the endorsement by Murdoch’s Post of that campaign – are impossible to miss. (Never mind that Murdoch himself is a card-carrying member of said establishment, and his Wall Street Journal is among Trump’s most relentless critics.)

Whatever voters decide, the message for business is clear. Both Europe and the U.S. are turning inward, and the ramifications for the global economic system set up after World War II are profound.

Yesterday, my former colleague Richard Wilke of the Pew Research Center released new polling data comparing attitudes in the U.S. and Europe that reinforce this message. Among the findings: 57% of Americans, and similar majorities in many European countries, want their country to “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems”; only 37% of Americans and around 40% in European countries are interested in helping “other countries deal with their problems.”

Some 49% of Americans go even further, saying they believe “global economic engagement is a bad thing because it lowers wages and cost jobs,” compared to just 44% “who think it is a good thing because it creates new markets and growth.” Pro-globalization sentiment still prevails in most European countries, with the exception of Greece and Italy.

Those numbers raise serious issues for companies that built their businesses on the assumption that globalization – fueled by digitalization – is an irresistible force.



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