The period since the 23rd June 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has been marked by both intense introspection and speculation about the future, but the recent news that Eurostar is to launch direct high-speed rail services between London and Holland – the first train to Amsterdam will depart St Pancras on 4th April 2018 – provides us with the starkest evidence yet that Brexit is a legal construct – not an economic reality.
This is not to deny the likely and profound economic consequences that may stem from the UK’s eventual departure from the EU. These are already all too real, even at a stage when such an event remains, as yet, hypothetical.
However, the new Eurostar routes concretely illustrate a point that both sides of the Brexit debate have pretty much completely missed: namely, that nation states are not now the key organising principle of much contemporary economic activity. As the ‘Tokyo prophet’ and McKinsey doyen Kenichi Ohmae noted is his 1995 classic The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies, the nation state unit is in many contexts of little analytical usefulness. Abstract concepts such as ‘the Italian economy’ or ‘the Russian economy’ can serve to obfuscate the fact that Milan and Moscow have far more in common with Munich (and each other) than they do with Messina and Mikhaylovka respectively.
Instead, it makes much more sense to talk of region states, which is precisely the reality that the new links between the United Kingdom’s cosmopolitan capital city and its nearest Dutch counterparts reflects. The Eurostar-connected metropolises of London, Paris and Brussels are already to some degree a shared economic space, and Amsterdam – whose air travel market to and from London is presently at the 1994 level of that between London and Paris – will doubtless soon join this zone.
Moreover, the rise of the region state is not primarily policy-driven. Instead, it is essentially a function of technology and economic opportunity; ceteris paribus, there are brighter prospects in an urban area of millions of consumers and access to world markets than in a provincial town, or even a string of provincial towns.
Naturally, the nation state still has a vital role to play in providing goods and services – particularly public ones – that region states which increasingly fund these same nation states do not yet have the administrative capacity to supply. Indeed, the pressing need for basic economic equity has not gone away, and should be seriously and comprehensively addressed.
But Brexit or no Brexit, the processes of economic globalisation are here to stay, and will in fact only intensify. Attempts to stifle these trends by bureaucratic asphyxiation are beyond misguided – they are ultimately futile.