Did you see Brexit coming?

In 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. Three years down the track, there is still no prospect of an orderly Brexit. The current deadline is 31st October. Prof. Dr. Hans Mackenstein, an economist at the FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences, talks to us about his time as a student in Great Britain, about Brexit, and about why the Brits are opting for the impossible.

FutureMag: In 1989, you were one of the first Aachen students to go to Coventry University, a partner university of the FH Aachen. Did you enjoy your time there?
Mackenstein: It helped me to advance a great deal. I gained international experience, made new friends and made progress in my own personal development. After my double graduation in Business Administration and Applied Economics, I went on to do a master’s degree in International Economic Policy at the University of Birmingham and then found a place to do my doctorate at the University of Leicester. All in all, I spent ten years in Great Britain.

FutureMag: Did you see any signs back then that Brexit would one day be on the cards?
Mackenstein: No, I have a completely different image of Great Britain in my memory. At the beginning of the 1990s, I lived in Leicester – a town with an industrial history, like Coventry and Birmingham – where many ethnic minorities had been living for a very long time. People there were very warm-hearted, friendly and tolerant. In 1996, I moved to Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. I remember the people there being somewhat more reserved, but not xenophobic or racist.

FutureMag: Why do you think the British people voted to leave the EU?
Mackenstein: I think the so-called Eastward Enlargement was one of the reasons. In 2004, a staggering ten new states joined the EU; in 2007 the relatively poor countries of Rumania and Bulgaria were added to the Union. The Brits received a lot of nationals from those countries who wanted in on the labour market of the “West”. That seems to have triggered something in the minds of many Brits. Then, in 2008, they were hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis, which led the government to impose strict austerity measures. A perfect breeding ground for populism. When it finally came to the Brexit referendum, the political weekly “The Economist” did an analysis and found that the regions in which the population was most in favour of Brexit were exactly those regions where the proportion of immigration had risen relatively quickly over a short period of time. That had been a clearly noticeable change – one that obviously overchallenged the people there.

FutureMag: What consequences should the British people reckon with, if or when Brexit actually happens?
Mackenstein: The British people want to leave, but at the same time they want to keep all the advantages of being an EU Member. In my opinion, they are not being completely realistic. They want to have a privileged status, which the other Member States are not prepared to grant them in the dimensions they are demanding. This decision will, in my opinion, have far-reaching consequences – not only, but nevertheless primarily, for Britain. Certain developments are already taking place, for example the collapse in value of the British Pound or the exodus of international corporations, which will lead to a loss of jobs. The national economy will shrink.

FutureMag: Do you think that more students from Aachen will continue to get their double degrees in Great Britain?
Mackenstein: Yes, I think so. However, it will be a more complicated undertaking, because after Brexit there will most probably be an increase in tuition fees for the United Kingdom, and prospective students will possibly also have to apply for visas or stay permits.