DETROIT (June 28, 2016) — I will make no bones having an opinion here: I am deeply shocked and disappointed by the decision of British voters to leave the European Union.
I had the privilege of living in London for six years, covering the auto industry for our sibling publication Automotive News Europe. To live in a city that seemed the center of the civilized world was thrilling for a guy from a small Indiana town.
I had to pinch myself that I was getting paid to visit the major cities of Europe for the big auto shows. That I was jetting off to, say, Spain's Costa del Sol, to be among the first to drive auto makers' latest models. That I got to write about and drive brands unfamiliar here: Rovers, Skodas, Renaults and Citroens.
I arrived in September 1998, a time of unbridled optimism. The euro was introduced in early 1999. What a relief not to have to change pounds to guilders or francs to liras! It was all so hassle free. As an American, my passport was checked when I traveled from Britain to the European mainland, more a formality than hassle.
I loved being part of a community of nations and learning the nuances of the different markets. Why did diesel cars sell like hotcakes in Spain but not so well in the Netherlands?
My Detroit editors had sent me to cover Ford of Europe, long headquartered on the edge of greater London. But soon after arriving I learned that Ford had quietly moved its European headquarters to Cologne, Germany — to be closer to the heart of the continent.
The move was ticklish for Ford Motor Co., which has roots in Britain going back to 1909. Ford has been Britain's market leader in cars for 39 years. Many Brits regard Ford almost as a domestic brand. Elsewhere in the E.U. it was an also-ran.
One downside to my job: I had to try to master the complexities of European Commission regulations, those very regulations that frustrated some British voters enough that they voted to leave the union. The block exemption, which governed relations between dealers and manufacturers the way franchise laws do in the U.S., gave me migraines.
Still, a maze of rules seemed a reasonable alternative to the wars that twice tore Europe apart last century.
Living in London reinforced for me a distinction lost on some Americans: The terms British and English are not the same. Great Britain includes three nations: England, Scotland and Wales. Add Northern Ireland and you have the United Kingdom.
Or subtract? Scotland is making noises about declaring independence from the U.K. and staying in the EU. The consequences of such an unraveling will take years to play out for the auto industry and for society in general. But it means a place I loved called Britain may no longer be so great any more.