What does Brexit mean for travellers?
That British vote to leave the European Union kicked up a big stink, right? It’s even landed the UK with a new prime minister. Is it all over now? Sadly, the answer is no. So far it’s probably not had a huge effect on your everyday life. But for eager globe trotters, it has the potential to alter your travels in some fundamental ways. Frustratingly, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going to happen because the UK has not yet worked out when or how it will extricate itself from the EU. That’s going to be dealt with in probably testy negotiations between the Brits and some affronted Europeans. And the process could easily drag on for years.
For the time being, though, there are four things for travellers to think about:
The British pound has been nosediving since the Brexit vote, losing around 10 per cent of its value against the dollar and the euro as the market decided that leaving the EU would be catastrophic for the UK economy. That’s already made Brits overseas a bit poorer. Before the referendum, if you’d wanted to have €200 in your pocket for a weekend in Paris you’d have needed to change £153. Now you’ll need to stump up £169 to get the same result. But on the flip side, the plunging pound is great news for anyone getting paid in another currency. Suddenly over-priced London is not such a budget-buster any more. The pound probably won’t stay in its enfeebled state forever. But until the uncertainty is cleared up about what Brexit actually means, there will be no reason for it to recover.
The referendum stirred up a lot of emotions both inside and outside the UK and passions continue to simmer in its aftermath. So it’s not surprising that the result has changed the way we think about each other – and created some unwelcome new frictions. A Spanish friend waiting to go through passport control at Heathrow a few days after the vote said she had the uncomfortable sensation that Britain had just told her she was not welcome. A British friend in southeast Asia said he was accosted by an angry German lady on a plane who demanded to know “Why did you do it?” English people in particular may have to get used to other Europeans recoiling when their accents betray where they are from. When I mentioned this to a friend from New York, she said: “Now you’ll know what it feels like to be an American.”
The Brits who voted to Leave were motivated by a motley mix of issues, but chief among them was immigration. Many don’t like how freedom of movement within the EU – a cornerstone of the bloc’s formation – has allowed hundreds of thousands of people from the continent (and from eastern Europe in particular) to come to the UK unhindered. They saw voting Leave as way to tighten Britain’s borders. Depending on how those UK-EU negotiations turn out, Brexit could ultimately mean there’s a lot more hassle in store for EU travellers entering the UK, and for British travellers in the EU. We all love breezing around Europe today, waving our passports airily at daydreaming immigration officers. Well, those days could be numbered. Can you imagine having your status scrutinised and your passport stamped just to get through Dublin airport?
Freedom of movement in Europe is about more than just weekends away and summer holidays. It’s about the deeper immersion that is possible when you can live, study and work across 28 countries – it’s about trying to learn Italian in a year in Bologna, or moving in rashly with your new beau in Stockholm, or trying to make it at a funky start-up in Berlin. Those are things that Brexit could end up killing. Maybe you haven’t done any of them. But the fact you can dream about them, and that those dreams are not utterly implausible, adds an extra frisson of excitement to travelling around the EU. Your week-long yoga retreat on a Greek island might be coming to an end, but what’s stopping you from going back there as the instructor? Your wobbly shoulder stand, maybe, but there’s no bureaucrat standing in your way. We’ll be sad if that changes.
But, people, do not despair. Britain does not have the whip hand in those testy UK-EU negotiations that I mentioned. It still desperately needs the EU as a trading partner, and the EU will say the price of access to its consumers is keeping borders open. Add to that the new-found volatility of British politics, and the buyers’ remorse of some Leave voters, and it’s possible that Brexit will be fudged in a way that spares travellers the worst long-term impacts. All is not lost.