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Opinion: essential enlightened commerce

ISE and Europe must stay open for business, says columnist Rob Lane.

It’s at this time of the year that I usually choose to ruminate on the latest ISE in this column – how it’s set to break its own records yet again, what we can expect to see there, how the organisers plan to cope with the number of exhibitors and attendees.

This year, however, I’ll leave the record-breaking and capacity speculation to one side: we all know the event will mushroom in size yet again. Instead, let’s celebrate ISE’s inclusivity; its pan-European ethos and its global-facing business broad-mindedness. In my humble opinion, ISE is a success, year on year, as a result of this openness.

Those of you who read my pre-ISE column last year will remember my observations of how ISE is the antithesis of Brexit and Trump’s America First trade protectionism. Politics? Perhaps. However, while it is indeed true that I’m no fan of Trump and believe Brexit to be the UK’s biggest faux pas since Suez, politics doesn’t really come in to it – whichever way the UK voted in 2016.

Oiling the wheels
For me it’s all about trade, not politics. ISE, like the EU, was set up to help oil the wheels of business, particularly across continental Europe, and like the EU itself, ISE has in recent years become more globally facing, with an increasing number of exhibitors and attendees from around the world. However, at its heart ISE remains a European event, an opportunity for Europeans to meet and do business, while reaching out to the rest of the world – just as the EU itself allows its members to enjoy tariff-free trade and to make collective deals with countries outside of the bloc. For me, Brexit, particularly a hard one, is a threat to these freedoms.

It’s true that British attendees and exhibitors will still be able to enjoy ISE’s business opportunities after Brexit, just as they will be able to – in some yet-to-be-determined arrangement – continue trading with their EU partners. However, as will almost certainly be the case with the UK’s post-Brexit trade, things won’t be quite as smooth and frictionless at ISE, with blue-passport-carrying Brits losing the privilege of shorter customs queues at Schiphol. (Although, of course, it’s the same for all non-EU ISE visitors.)

It’s essential that both the EU and ISE continue to reach out and to flourish

Nationalism and populism
Even if things do continue as before – and there are still some who believe Brexit won’t actually happen – what upsets and angers me, as an open, proud Brit and European, is that some of the reasoning that got us to this unsettling (for business, mainly) Brexit state of affairs reeks of nationalism – particularly a thinly veiled anti-European stench – intensified by populism.

In the sparkly, warm glow of pre-Christmas I experienced this mentality first hand in my local boozer. Returning from the bar, with drinks for a couple of work acquaintances, I was informed by a stranger that I was “in a four-to-one minority” in this particular corner of the pub, as a Remainer (an assumption made by one of my co-drinkers – not a difficult deduction to be fair!).

What offended me was the reasoning behind three of my four co-drinkers (the fourth being too drunk to speak!) for voting Leave: it was proudly xenophobic and anti-European, with one even opining that he’d voted to leave the EU because to remain was a slight against the old soldiers who fought for Britain’s freedom in WWII. (When I interrogated him later it transpired he had seen a number of pro-Brexit adverts on Facebook suggesting that Britain was being run by countries that it had “beaten in the war”, conveniently ignoring the fact that it had been allies for decades or that many EU members were allies in 1939-45 in any case!)

One of my many highlights of attending ISE, year after year, is the opportunity to meet with colleagues, friends and attendees from across the continent – as well as further afield – and it concerns me that they might believe I share these ‘Little Englander’ and ‘Johnny Foreigner’ prejudices. To my mind, it’s essential that both the EU and ISE continue to reach out and to flourish, for our continued prosperity and cross-border, peaceful openness. Let’s not forget, the EU has helped to keep the peace in Europe for decades, following the devastating conflicts of the 20th century. Open, fluid cross-border trade has a tendency of doing that.