Stephen Maly provides an uncommonly entertaining look at trade in this illuminating personal narrative of his recent working visit to the UK: ‘TTIP, Brexit and Bespoke.

June 17,2016

My brief encounter with Transnational trade issues and the British brand.

“Europe is finished.” The statement floored me. I stopped slurping the wine and garlic broth from a bowl of mussels. I had just asked my Brussels bistro table mates what they thought about the growing tension between Flemings and Walloons in bi-communal Belgium, and they had quickly skipped to the more significant questionCthe future of the European Union writ large. This was last November, before the Paris bombings, before the migrant crisis overwhelmed the E.U.’s system of open borders, before Brexit loomed larger than Grexit (Britain and Greece’s prospects for quitting the E.U., respectively), and before the terrorist bombings on the Brussels Metro and at the airport, both places which I had found in the past two days to be pleasant, modern, and totally unscary.

I was visiting Belgium for the first time, en route to London to join up with a trio of print reporters and our guide from the British Embassy in Washington, D.C, to get a solid sense of the United Kingdom’s stake in a pending trade agreement. Having taken short day trips by train to lovely Liege (in the francophone region of Wallonia), and stately Ghent (a graceful town of medieval origins in Dutch speaking Flanders), I was capping off my leisurely intro to a short but intense field trip with a generous portion of moules fritesCjust one of the many examples of fine cuisine to be enjoyed in this modestly-scaled cosmopolitan capital city. To hear it straight from several highly educated, multi-lingual urban professionals that the European Union was on its last legs came as a bit of a shock, and the statement placed the target of my journey, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Agreement, in a dodgy cross-hairs situation, i.e. as good as dead.

TTIP, as it’s known by those in the know, is the largest and most complicated commercial partnership proposal EVER. It is designed to combine the United States and the 28-member European Union into a single market for trade and investment flows. That’s an over-simplification, of course. Europe is not as seamless as the U.S. There are all sorts of legal, commercial, and regulatory conditions that still distinguish one country from another in the European Union, notwithstanding a series of formalized steps leading Europe towards “an ever closer union”, the somewhat problematic prologue embedded in the preamble to the foundational Maastricht Treaty. (This phrase has given rise to morbid expectations among British and other nationalists that the EU is actually intended to result in a “United States of Europe”, with a central command post in Brussels.) So, the “single market” descriptor is a stretch. The United States is itself a hodge podge of market fragmentation, especially when it comes to professional licensing and public procurement, two areas of interest on the part of European architectural, engineering, business services and accounting firms eager to do more business in America under fresh terms, via TTIP.

The U.S. and the E.U. already constitute the two most powerful economic engines on earth. The European Union is the world’s largest trading bloc, with over 500 million customers and scores of business firms with global reach. The United States has over 300 million consumers, many of the world’s largest transnational corporations, and the world’s reserve currency. Combining the two would encompass 50 percent of global output, 30 percent of merchandise trade, 20 percent of global investment. Tariffs on most items are already low or non-existent. Most of the anticipated gains for firms on both continents are in the realm of business services (especially digital services), harmonization of regulatory mechanisms (e.g., how chemicals are introduced into commerce), intellectual property protections (to safeguard innovations, brands, and trademarks), and agricultural exports (more chickens from the Carolinas, more cheeses from France, and starter shipments of beef and lamb from Scotland and Wales).

The impetus for this complex mega-deal goes well beyond sectoral considerations. Backers believe that if the U.S. and Europe can agree to a single set of rules, the rest of the world will likely follow. More importantly, in the larger, aggregate dimension, TTIP as a policy initiative is all about economic growth, without which societies start to fray from within and tear apart from one another along nationalistic and sometimes ethnic lines. Unemployment in Europe, especially among the young, stagnant wages in America, especially in the middle class, anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S., the U.K., and northern Europe: it adds up quickly and ominously to constitute a clear and present danger to the stability of the democracies that make up the Trans Atlantic community. In this geopolitical sense, TTIP is like a glue gun to hold economic relationships together, because they have serious socio-political consequences.

TTIP itself is a massive accomplishment, involving dozens of working groups and hundreds of highly trained specialists from all the E.U. member countries and the U.S. who have fashioned the detailed arrangements whereby remaining tariffs will be reduced or eliminated, complicated (and in some cases contradictory) regulatory regimes will be accommodated or harmonized, and commercial conflicts will be resolved through quasi-judicial mechanisms. The pact faces stiff opposition, especially in continental Europe. The controversy there is more about standard setting and regulatory cooperation than traditional barriers to trade. The Europeans don’t want to accept “watered down” American standards whereby the burden of proof as to the health effects of chemical additives in food, fiber, and industrial goods lies with weak consumer protection agencies, not the producers themselves. In Europe, new products must be proven safe with respect to public health; in America, use is generally okayed until proven unsafe. Europeans in general abhor Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which are increasingly viewed as essential to the continued success of American agri-business companies. While some 70 percent of all processed foods sold in U.S. supermarkets now contain GMOs, the EU won’t allow them at all.

Two further examples illustrate the cultural and philosophical differences in perspective that have bogged down TTIP negotiators. Geographic indicators are distinctive emblems used to identify a product as originating in the territory of a particular country, region or locality where its quality, reputation or other characteristic is linked to its geographical origin. Think about Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, These are brand names denoting a uniquely specific place of origin. (They both happen to be sponsors of the wonderful culinary show Splendid Table on National Public Radio.) Contrast that with the many brands of Swiss cheese in the United States. American dairy interests argue that domestic cheese producers are, for the most part, the progeny of European immigrants who brought their recipes with them a century or more ago. Trademarks ought to suffice to protect culinary trade secrets, the Americans argue. The Europeans insist that there is no fair comparison between Wisconsin-made Swiss cheese made and Emmental de Savoie, thus geographic indicators must be protected. Cornish pasty makers in the U.K. have weighed in on the matter, insisting that nobody outside Cornwall can craft a meat and potato pie to rival the authentic original. The pasty makers in Butte, Montana might take issue with this, although they might also support Geographic Indicators in a domestic setting, respectful as they are of the heritage of Cornish immigrants who worked the local copper mines in the last century. As you can see, when people take pride in what they make, the issue has no easy solution.

Critics of TTIP in the U.S. and Europe alike regard one of its features as a frontal assault on democracy. Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions in the pact would allow companies to sue governments if regulatory agencies cause a loss of profits. At first blush, this sounds outrageous—and many learned people believe it to be just that—an outrage. ISDS provisions are somewhat ubiquitous in free trade agreements. I’ve heard justifications for ISDS in the Asia Pacific region and elsewhere based on the capriciousness of authoritarian governments who don’t care much for the rule of law when it comes to seizing private property and in effect (or in outright fashion) “nationalizing” successful business ventures to collect exorbitant rents and profits from their hapless citizens. This kind of behavior seems much less likely in the Trans Atlantic arena, where sophisticated systems of legal due process are deeply ensconced.

It seems imprudent to go into much more detail about TTIP as a very complicated transnational business arrangement that is probably doomed, at least in the short run. Public opinion polls in Germany and France indicate dwindling support if not downright majority opposition in these two critically important E.U. members. In the U.S., TTIP is largely unknown as yet to the general public. Meanwhile, free trade is getting a bad rap worldwide. Notwithstanding political diatribes and the defection of many formerly pro-free trade economists to a camp of skeptics, what distinguishes TTIP from other trade agreements, past and pending, is that it will not result in a wholesale transfer of manufacturing jobs from one continent to another. Wage rates are very similar in the U.S. and Europe, and many firms from both areas have already off-shored production to low wage jurisdictions in Asia. The critical questions in TTIP revolve around “level playing fields” in the service sectors, and the matter of locating front office operations. One of the positive aspects of TTIP is that it could provide compelling rationale for manufacturing firms to back away from investing directly in foreign markets and relying instead on exports from home base, thus preserving jobs in domestic jurisdictions.

TTIP was, and still is, waiting in a queue behind another mammoth trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP. President Obama signed the accord in February, following many months of negotiation with 11 other Pacific countries involved (including Japan, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam—but not China) and a hard-fought victory within the U.S. to obtain a renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) from the Congress. The TPP is part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s “pivot” to the Asia Pacific region, a shift in foreign policy emphasis and priority away from other areas—the Middle East and Europe in particular—that have required the lion’s share of military and diplomatic attention for the past half century. Asia is on the rise in every dimension that matters, including the purchasing power that will determine the shape and trajectory of the global economy. The panoply of American national interests as a Great Power are in vivid display in Asia: defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines; a commitment to prevent a hostile takeover of Taiwan by China, budding commercial and diplomatic relationships with Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia, freedom and navigation in and military accessibility to the world’s most important shipping lanes for oil, food, and other strategically important goods.

While President Obama recently announced that passage of TPP is unlikely before his term expires, proponents of the deal are holding out hope for favorable action during a lame duck session of Congress in early 2017. This keeps TTIP somewhere back in the line, at least for the next year or so, until the dust from the elections settles and some semblance of a coherent foreign trade agenda emerges from the next administration. Both TPP and TTIP are being trotted out and put on display against a backdrop of anti trade rhetoric spewing from the U.S. presidential campaigns. The timing for both could hardly be worse.

Following a smooth and fast transit to London on the high speed Eurostar, through the Chunnel, I made my initial rendezvous with fellow team members Jim Berger, Jerry Hagstrom, and Trevor Williams in the breakfast room at the well-appointed Conrad St. James Hotel. Jim is a slightly scruffy reporter and editor of the Washington Trade Daily, which he founded in 1988. As we delved into fruit plates and self-introductions, it didn’t take long to grasp that Jim’s wry humor veiled a deep strain of cynicism. One could say, with respect rather than disdain, that Mr. Berger has been “around the block” many times over, and is well connected to insider information about agricultural trade issues wrought from networks of friendships, acquaintances, and probably even rivalries on Capitol Hill. From that first encounter, I came to trust Jim’s well informed insights into how Washington works—or doesn’t work, depending on political circumstances.

Jerry Hagstrom is a prize winning agricultural journalist, book author and commentator. He writes a column for National Journal Daily. Jerry’s from North Dakota, and he’s been all over the place, lecturing about trade at Ivy League schools. Jerry seemed to be “up” on just about everything food related in the TTIP portfolio, from geographic indicators to Genetically Modified Organisms to how American chickens undergo a chlorine chemical wash that the Europeans cannot abide.

Jim and Jerry together constituted a seasoned dose of double trouble exuding friendly but formidable skepticism regarding TTIP’s chances for success in the U.S. Our considerably younger colleague, Trevor Williams, offered a more subtle approach and critique. Trevor is the managing editor of Global Atlanta, an online news service covering the city’s multiple intersections with the world economy. From my parochial Western U.S. perspective, Atlanta is a big city that we Delta flyers have to stop at whenever we’re headed overseas—its’ not a place I think of as a major hub of international trade. But a few days in Trevor’s inquisitive company set me straight on that score, especially with respect to financial services and the auto sector. Trevor’s probing queries over the next few days would also reveal a sensitivity to ethical considerations, probably in part a manifestation of his academic training in magazine journalism AND religion at the University of Georgia. One more thing along those lines: Trevor is the editor of a published tome entitled Making Men, billed as a simple five-step explanation of how a truly good man acts in the world, written to help fathers train their sons into “Godly manhood”.

Our official host and guide was the British Embassy’s Communication Officer Kate Greer. Having corresponded with her previously only by e-mail and telephone, the actual Kate was a surprise. She is an American citizen, originally from Vietnam, working at and for the U.K. Embassy in Washington, D.C. What I found particularly endearing from start to finish on our sojourn was her frequent use of the very British English term “brilliant”. If you’re a devotee of BBC programs you’ll know what I’m referring to. Americans are wont to describe favorable suggestions or circumstances as “awesome” or “cool”; the Brits simply say “brilliant”.

At this preliminary get-together, Ms. Greer supplied us with a detailed itinerary, a magazine devoted to British innovation, and a research report on TTIP jointly prepared and published by the Atlantic Council, the Bertelsmann Foundation, and the Embassy itself. The document provides a state-by-state assessment of the expected gains in jobs and incomes afforded by successful implementation of the trade accord. More on that later. For communication coordination purposes, Kate also issued the team an official code name: JoDel (for Journalist Delegation.) Since we were the first such group to enjoy the Embassy’s sponsorship, we requested and received a slightly jazzier designation: JoDel-Alpha.

Thus equipped with a mission moniker, background papers, notebooks, passports and writing implements of varying weights and measures (journalists are picky about their pens), we set forth into the breech. On day one and from then on, Kate kept the JoDel-Alpha squad on task and on time with a rigorous and peripatetic agenda—holding “on the record” discussions with officials and from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, the head of the private sector Institute of Directors (an association of management executives from major trading companies in the UK), and the CEO of British Telecom, who hosted us in the BT tower, with a 360 degree panoramic view of central London. The telecommunications giant has ambitions to provide cloud-based services in the U.S., and, as already mentioned, other private companies are keen on penetrating the American procurement and professional services markets.

At lunchtime we met up with three members of Parliamentary in Portcullis House, a spacious arena adjacent to the House of Commons reserved for members, staff, and, happily, the odd group of invited groups from abroad. JoDel-Alpha fit the latter bill. Many Americans know the thrill of standing outside the Parliament buildings, gazing up at Big Ben and pondering the actual and figurative architecture of democracy. I must say the opportunity to enjoy a delightful dish of flash cooked cod over lentil pilaf in the company of three MPs really takes the cake. The din of daily comings and goings of parliamentary staff made it difficult to hear what the two Labor Party members and their Conservative colleague were actually saying, but the general gist of the conversation was that TTIP enjoyed bipartisan support in the House of Commons. Nobody had the temerity to mention Brexit. The Conservative Party member was keenly interested in finding out how young Trevor possessed the gumption to publish a how-to-book about modern moral manhood.

Later in the afternoon, at the world-renowned Huntsman tailor shop on Savile Row, I had my first meaningful encounter with the term Abespoke@ Not having much of a hankering for fashion (ask anybody!), and not being inclined to reading classic English fiction (aside from Ian Fleming novels,), I figured bespoke would best befit an emblematic iteration of Sir Gawain or some other member of King Arthur’s court. But no, as everyone else on the JoDel-Alpha team knew already, bespoke is all about high quality, customized products, built to last, and exhibiting the finest attributes of skilled craftsmanship.

Huntsman has been in business for over 100 years. While most middle class American travelers are unlikely to visit this place in the course of their London tour, they can catch a glimpse of it in the stylishly wacky 2014 Colin Firth movie entitled Kingsman: The Secret Service. It was our great privilege to be shown around the shop by the able and highly experienced staff, to fondle fine imported fabrics, witness the precision cutting, and marvel at the models on display, including the suit warn by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. Our hosts were both self-effacing and impeccable in every way. I did not realize until ten minutes into the show and tell that a well-tailored suit of world class distinction would ever be something I could actually covet. But I did, just then, and I still do.

Our next stop was up the road a bit. Actually, the village of Banbury in Oxfordshire is just over 75 miles distant from London. Needless to sayCbut I’ll say it anywayCI was grateful that someone else was driving the hired van for JoDel-Alpha. Negotiating Britain’s motorways can be a thrilling challenge. I can attest to personal success steering a rented Renault Clio through and around the roundabouts in Wales some years ago: No traffic tickets, no fender benders, no disastrous moments of forgetfulness about which side of the road is the Aright@ side. However, the volume of daily auto and truck traffic in and out of the London area these days would prove daunting to any American, even someone from L.A. Anyway, we found our designated hostelry, the Cromwell Lodge Hotel, in downtown Banbury. From there we strolled in a slow drizzle to a well-worn pub (Ye Olde Reindeer) that featured the best dish of baked lamb I’ve ever had. Others enjoyed the beef, with beer; all good! After this modest yet sumptuous evening meal, the proprietor took us back to the Globe Room, where Cromwell himself once held what must have been a rather stiff and fastidious court.

The next day’s TTIP investigation started with a visit to the Aynho Herd Farm, which is home base for the second oldest herd of purebred Angus cattle in England. The farm was founded in 1903. In the ensuing century plus, live animals and genetic materials alike have populated farms and fields in the British Isles as well as across North America and as far away as New Zealand. Alexander MacKenzie is the proprietor. He and his wife welcomed us into their kitchen for some coffee and a bit of history. There was a lot of history, actually, and much of it was contained in a Bible-thick, black covered registry that contains the name of every Angus born, bred and sold on the premises. We passed the book around, and it came to me, just then, that Aynho Angus are the original and genuine article: Bespoke Beef!

Alex supplied the entire team with Wellington boots—you know, “Wellies”–the high and stiff rubber boots built to last and to keep your feet dry and warm whilst walking across the briny muck of an English farmyard. We were guided from house to barn to feed storage areas by a Labrador retriever, who seemed to relish our company as well as that of the many young steers bestirred by our tramping about. The happy dog stopped short of crossing a fence line that separated the safe zone of tractors and storage bins from a grassy pasture area inhabited by a rather intimidating bull named Pilgrim. We approached the animal. He issued a rather bellicose snort in response, but Mr. MacKenzie gave him a talking to and that was that. They have a relationship, and the large ring in Pilgrim’s nose is telltale with respect to who’s the boss on this property.

SMaly_pilgrimIt was out there next to the bull that the E.U. first entered the collective conversation. Apparently this farm and others in the area are beneficiaries of environmental conservation-based “schemes”—the term was used, but not in the pejorative tone—that help finance, for example, hedgerows and copses that provide prime habitat for pheasant and other game birds. English farmers, like farmers and ranchers everywhere, like to shoot things that are good to eat, and also enjoy “farming out” the privilege to paying customers. Anyway, a discussion about the relative merits and costs of such programs brought us to bring up Brexit. It was a brief but revealing dialogue. A relatively young neighbor with a farm of his own to manage had joined our party. He favors sticking with the European Union, warts and all, because it provides ready access to a huge market for agricultural products as well as a source of financial support. Mr. MacKenzie, on the other hand, indicated with a half wince, half grin facial expression that he is “leaning against” staying in the E.U. While I didn’t realize it at the time, this split in opinion between two farmers, one young and the other not-so-young, was predictive of things to come.

It’s time for a brief fast forward. I know so much more now than I did then about Brexit and its implications, thanks to thorough reporting by Stephen Erlanger and others in the New York Times, as well as to the on-line blog called The Globalist and my subscription to the Economist magazine. In one of many pithy summations, Erlanger writes: “According to those who favor leaving the bloc, Britain is the victim of faceless, highly compensated bureaucrats in Brussels who meet in secret and churn out off-the-wall regulations costing business billions of pounds a year. They say British citizens are subjected to taxes and other measures by a supposedly unaccountable European Parliament, while Britain as a whole sends far more money each year than it gets back. Above all, perhaps, they say Britain is virtually powerless to stop the influx of migrants—more than 300,000 arrived last year.” That’s the now familiar litany of grievances from the “Leave” the EU campaign: Europe is stifling business, bleeding the country dry and flooding it with unwanted immigrants. Here’s Erlanger again with contrary, pro-EU perspectives: “Those who support remaining in the bloc play down these issues, focusing on what a seemingly inexhaustible supply of government officials, economists, bankers and business executives call the dire consequences of leaving: a weakened currency, job losses, slower growth, depressed trade, the end of London’s status as a world financial capital and a loss of influence in European affairs. Immigrants, just over half from European Union member states, give the economy energy, youth and creativity, contributing to the economic vitality that makes multicultural London the envy of the world.”

Gordon Brown, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, addressed the Leave camp’s fear of a centralized, borderless union in the making this way. “The high tide of Europe’s federalist ambitions is receding. It its place is a more acceptable model of decision making by its 28 national governments. The Continent’s future lies not in a United States of Europe, but in a United Europe of States.” This is deft rhetoric, to be sure, and it follows closely on the heels of a Bank of England study declaring Brexit the number one risk to the U.K.s domestic financial stability. Other studies point out that if the U.K. leaves the E.U., it will be the first withdrawal of a founding state, and it could hasten further breakup, as there will be no country in a position to keep Germany from overpowering everyone else, including its historical arch-rival France.

An Economist article back in 2012, captured the ambivalent nature of attitudes in the U.K. by referring to Britons as “awkward partners—they think of their relationship with Europe as a transaction, not a heartfelt commitment.” As a result of assiduous reading and research, in addition to the field trip I’m attempting to describe, I believe I’ve come to understand why so many older Britons want to quit the E.U. It’s a matter of sovereignty, much of which they believe has been ceded to Eurocrats in Brussels, and identity, which they think is threatened by immigrant hordes from Eastern Europe and, much worse, places like India and Pakistan and various countries of Africa and the Caribbean. The younger set, especially in greater London, and the millions of British citizens who have emigrated to the U.K. from around the world, are more willing to accept the pooling of sovereignty that is the essence of the European Union idea, and are comfortable with a dual identity that is both British and European.

But wait! I shouldn’t be going on like this. I am writing this now, in the midst of an avalanche of pro-EU and anti-EU reportage, with only a week to go before the June 23 referendum. But the scene at Aynho Herd Farm was awhile back, before all sorts of pro-EU analyses had been done, before the anti-EU coalitions had gone ballistic, and just days after I’d been told in no uncertain terms that the European Union is well nigh kaput. If that is the case—if the European Union IS unraveling irrespective of Britain’s role and membership in it—then perhaps the “leave” campaign is pointing in the right direction for all the wrong reasons. It may very well be that the U.K. needs to re-orient its economy and its social and political aspirations to other parts of the world, including the United States and Canada, to China (through the Hong Kong portal), and to the many and varied countries in the far flung Commonwealth. If the E.U. is falling apart, with or without the U.K., then perhaps making the difficult adjustments in trade and investment policies now would be less painful than it would be in the wake of a European collapse into populist, protectionist, and neo-nationalist conflict and chaos. It’s just a thought—I don’t think Brexit will succeed, and I don’t want to believe that the EU will actually fail.

It was a rather astonishing experience to leave the moist and pungent air of an English cattle operation and shortly thereafter arrive at a bright and spotless modern automotive manufacturing facility. At the Aston Martin Design Facility factory at Groydon we were greeted by a youngish management team and shortly thereafter subjected to a power point presentation in a conference room. Actually, it was very well done, and it prompted some questions from the JoDel-Alpha team about the target market for high-end autos like the Aston Martin. Answer: “Our prime customer is likely to be a female attorney in Shanghai. She has just become a full-fledged partner in her firm. She already has a nice car, like a Range Rover, or a Porsche, and now she needs to step it up a notch, to signify her new-found status.” Okay, that made perfect sense; China’s rising upper middle class is the target market for just about everything in the world today. It also underscored the fact that none of us will likely ever have the earning power to afford such a car, or the cross-over model now on the drawing boards at Aston Martin. This humbling presentation did not prevent us, however, from pretending otherwise, and we were invited to take selfies next to the DB 10 model on display near the factory entrance. We were also shown the full array of Aston Martins, from very old to brand spanking new.

The manufacturing plant was truly impressive. There were no robots. Virtually every piece and part of an Aston Martin is hand crafted, and installed by uniformed technicians who looked to me to be consummately capable, efficient, and proud of the work they do. At Nissan factories in the U.S. (our hosts used to work for the Japanese giant), a complete car is turned out every half hour. It’s a near miracle of automation. In this shop, workers spend 80 hours on a single custom-fitted unit’s paint job. This is what “bespoke” means when it comes to making automobiles.

The brief focus on paint brought to mind, inevitably, the 1964 classic Bond film Goldfinger, where Q supplies James with a DB-7 equipped with machine guns, a pop-up bullet-proof plate, an oil slick dispenser, retractable tire shredder hubcaps and, not least, an ejector button for the passenger seat. Why do I remember this? Well, millions do, and it has something to do with the fact that every James Bond movie ever made is now featured as video choice (in multiple categories!) on hundreds of transatlantic and transpacific flights. This leads me to digress for just a bit longer on the James Bond franchise, and how it encapsulates so much of what is both attractive and admirable about the British brand.

At the aforementioned meeting at the Directors Institute in London, I had picked up a copy of the most recent edition (Nov., 2015) of the association’s monthly magazine, The Director. The entire issue was devoted to “The Business of Bond”, and it highlighted the many U.K. businesses in the 007 supply chain. I’ll share a few borrowed snippets of narrative to illustrate my point. One article describes James Bond movies as a veritable “shop window for the best of British manufacturing”. This of course includes first and foremost fancy cars—Jaguars, Range Rovers, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Aston Martins. Another feature asserts that the commercial impact of this powerful cultural icon called Bond is vast. The film series that began in 1962 with Dr. No has featured products made in every corner of the country. The latest slogan for the U.K.s tourism promotion campaign, timed to coincide with the release of Spectre—the 24th film in the series—is “Bond is GREAT Britain”. Another passage has me and a lot of other middle aged men pegged: “People aspire to the luxury, dramatic and carefree lifestyle portrayed by James Bond, and the product being portrayed in the films makes it seem possible for those of us not licensed to kill to indulge our fantasies and savour a little of the associated panache.” On the way out of the Aston Martin factory, as we JoDel -Alpha agents posed in front of the DB 10 on the show room floor, one of our charming hosts informed us that it was the only surviving unit of this made for the movie model. Nine others were “used up” in the making of Spectre.

We took the 7:30 PM Eurostar from St. Pancras station and arrived in Brussels before 10. I checked the late night cinema schedule. Large glossy Spectre ads were everywhere, but the movie was not yet in theatres. So I went for a stroll, revisiting the splendid Grand Place, where the waffle shops and a few chocolatiers were still open, a busker was still singing and hawking CDs, and tourists were still wandering about in a happy daze, enjoying the mild cool of an early November evening. Back at the ultra-green and modern Thon Hotel (a showcase of Nordic design and recycled materials) I settled into a late-night reverie, recalling the sights and scenes I’d experienced just a few days ago.

Brussels is made for wanderers. It has cobblestone streets, parks concealed behind massive stone edifices, and lots of humoresque built into the urban landscape, in statuary and graffiti formats. It’s hard to describe, actually—you have to go there and see for yourself what issues forth in public art from the imaginative minds that created Smerfs, Minions, and Tin Tin. I did a bit of reconnaissance in the neighborhood where all the huge and modern European Union buildings are located. Many entrances were guarded by small coteries of Belgian soldiers in camouflage uniforms, with FNC assault rifles at the ready and those big wheeled, snub nosed trucks that used to be one of my favorite metal Matchbox miniatures, along with Aston Martins, parked on the curb. They seemed relaxed. Nothing bad was going to happen in Brussels.

I tried to get into the Parliamentarium, a sort of museum devoted to all things EU, but it was closed on account of some obscure (to me) business holiday. On the way back toward my tiny boutique hotel, I ambled through a neighborhood inhabited entirely by black people. There were African bars and open air shops selling plantains and groundnuts and all sorts of colorfully exotic grocery items. The local people smiled, but I was clearly out of place in this space I called Little Burundi. (Just guessing, mind you; Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were Belgian colonies.)

A final pleasant memory sprang to mind—one that haunts me now, knowing what happened at the central railway station only a week after we left Brussels for home. Early on a Saturday morning the station was swarming with young people carrying every conceivable combination of knapsack, backpack, bedroll and squished up bedroom pillows. It was some sort of Belgian Boy Scout troupe, heading for an outdoor adventure in the Ardennes. The little kids were in awe of their teenage team leaders, taking cues on how to purchase tickets, how to handle the camping gear, and how to look grown up and ready for action. I’ve been in a good number of train stations, and never have I felt more safe and secure than in this one, in Brussels—before the bomb blasts.

I was having a hard time getting to sleep. So I asked myself: “In a situation like this, what would Bond do?” Well, he’d sip a single malt Scotch from a Grasmere Double Old Fashioned glass crafted by Cumbria Crystal, as he’s done in most of the films. I settled for a dram of red plonk from the mini-bar.

How to describe the next day—our last as a group—which entailed another whirlwind set of meetings with distinguished and articulate members of various agencies, including spokespersons from the European Commission (the Executive branch), the European Parliament (elected at large), and the European Council, made up of elected leaders of the 28 member states. I was less interested in gritty details about geographic indicators and GMOs than my colleagues. Some exchanges were captivating, such as those comparing how the Volkswagen auto emission scandal with the Chipotle e-coli debacle brought to light the different styles of arrogance and superiority that bedevil American and European relationships from the time to time, but after awhile my mind drifted toward big picture issues, like “Eurocracy”.

The E.U. is complicated. As Washington Post reporter Jim Yardley put it last December, “beneath these main branches is a labyrinthine bureaucracy that in flowchart form would resemble an M.C. Escher print. The overall processes of lawmaking and governing can be elusively fluid and deliberately opaque, which is one reason the credibility of European governance is so easily attacked. Many ordinary people have no idea how it works.” Coming face to face with the labyrinthine bureaucracy did not have the effect that I anticipated. I was so ready to join with the Brexit crowd, and decry the “faceless” Eurocrats. But instead, I discovered that they do have faces, and that they are serious about the integrity of the institutions that employ them. There are hundreds of very intelligent individuals from all over Europe applying their educated minds to solve complex problems in Brussels. What I found most interesting in this milieu was the striking contrast between the highly secretive processes and procedures that are de rigueur for TTIP negotiating teams and the technocrats’ eagerness to share information in our “off the record” briefings. They were, by and large, bursting with candor. Why is this? I am insufficiently schooled in human communication and social psychology to even posit a theory. For the moment, let’s just say people love to talk, even when they’re not supposed to.

It was our good fortune to finish the day among young Brits who had carved out a modest-sized L-shaped space in the lower floor of an office tower to serve as an in-house pub—aptly named 10 Downing Street–complete with a bar, a foosball table, and a hand-drawn map of the U.K. thumb-tacked to the wall. The atmosphere was refreshingly positive, and youthful. Opinion polls and political analysts suggest that up to two-thirds of Britons younger than 25 prefer to remain in the European Union, and that the British government will do everything it can to get them to the polls on June 23, since this group is less likely to bother to vote than those over 45, who favor Brexit.

A spectre is haunting Europe. It’s not Communism, or the threat of limited nuclear warCalthough that prospect is being revivified as Russia and NATO probe and provoke one another on the Eastern front. I’m using a definition that goes like this: Asomething widely feared as a possible unpleasant or dangerous occurrence,@ and of course I’m also thinking about the ASpecial Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion@, the secret crime organization that is also the bane of James Bond’s existence in From Russia with Love. In fact, the real-life spectre is equally multi-pronged and threatening: the referendum on Brexit, the possibility that Scotland may quit the U.K. in response to a Yes vote, the ever present possibility that Greece will exit the Euro zone and precipitate a cascade of defaults and other currency-related debacles, the breakup of Belgium, a permanent collapse of the E.U. commitment to open borders and labor mobility, the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-democratic extremist parties across the continent, In Austria, Hungary, Poland, France, and the Netherlands. It’s the whole idea of Europe as an integrated zone of peace and prosperity that is dissolving.

Less spectacularly, there is the likelihood that trade policy initiatives such as TTIP will fail. Opposition to the sweeping accord is rising in all important Germany and France, where elections will take place in 2017. And then, of course, there’s the political circus in the United States that bodes ill for any and all major trade policy initiatives. , The national election results will be telling, obviously, in terms of how the next President and legislative majorities are likely to tilt on trade. Donald Trump has proclaimed the 1994 Bill Clinton era NAFTA Athe worst trade agreement in the history of the world, @ and he promises in threatening tones to re-negotiate every major trade deal currently in play. Hillary Clinton reversed her position on TPP some time ago, stating that it no longer met her Astandards@, and hasn’t come out as a proponent of TTIP either.

Back home, in Montana, it has taken me awhile to take stock of this extraordinarily privileged experience, and to put Brexit, bespoke, and TTIP into a practical frame of reference. It seems a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. I think I’ve got the framework pieces connected, but inside the outer rim the middle is still a muddle. I have yet to sort things out, piece by piece. So far, I’ve received some valuable help from Katie Willcockson at the state’s Department of Commerce. After reading some of the materials supplied by the Embassy, I was truly perplexed. While the major exports to the EU from neighboring states such as Idaho, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota are pretty much what one would expectCgrains, energy products, some chemicals, etc.–the most valuable Montana export by far is pharmaceuticals. This isn’t medical marijuanaCat least not yet. According to the Atlantic Council report, Montana’s pharmaceutical sales have increased by a whopping 500 percent in recent years. Who would think that Missoula and Bozeman and Hamilton would be source points for legal drugs sold in European markets?

It just so happens that pharmaceuticals are enmeshed in both the TPP and TTIP. The main issue appears to be American demands for lengthy patent protection provisions, while the Asian and European countries insist on early access to generics. It’s difficult to tell what impact TTIP would have on the pre-existing level of Montana exports. But this single product area helps to illustrate the importance of international trade to Montana, and, more saliently, to the changing structure of the state’s economy, with services outpacing traditional commodities in both domestic and foreign sales growth, and with small, entrepreneur-driven businesses engaged in scientific and technological innovations aimed at the global markets.

Another form of business activity that is at the heart of TTIP and other trade agreements is public procurement. The American federal system enables individual states to craft, maintain, and enforce their own methods of awarding contracts for public infrastructure projects. In essence, from a foreign business point of view, the U.S. Is not a single market, but rather an inter-connected assemblage of fiefdoms with their own rules and regulations regarding foreign competition. One of the primary objectives of European proponents of TTIP is to overcome this form of economic protectionism. The stakes are high for French, German, Italian, British and other European companies specializing in business services, information technology, architecture and engineering, especially in states like California, Texas, Ohio, New York, Georgia. Montana is a small player, to say the least, but it is worth noting that our state’s procurement laws do not favor domestic over foreign bidders. Interestingly, the Legislative Branch is currently working with Dublin-based firm called Propylon to upgrade its bill drafting and publications software. During the current Interim between legislative sessions, one can often hear the lilt of an Irish-tongued technician Skyping in instructions to the IT staff in the capitol.

As a global citizen who is also an ordinary American, the arguments for TTIP and TPP are reasonable, but not compelling. I was schooled in orthodox economics, and comprehend the theoretical as well as empirically measurable gains from trade and investment over time. As Adam Smith put it in 1776, in The Wealth of Nations, “It always is and must be the interest of the great body of people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it the cheapest.” But Smith had his many articulate successors did not foresee the dominance of transnational corporations, the advent of global supply chains, or the destabilizing income inequality resulting from managed and manipulated trade agreements. The secrecy involved in both TTIP and TPP seems indefensible, and it adds credence to critics claiming that trade mega-deals are an affront to democratic values of fairness and transparency by giant corporations whose interests are antithetical to the middle class. Some of the other controversial elements of both documents, including the investor dispute provisions, are more than troubling, especially in light of corporate lobbying power in Congress, deceitful business practices (Volkswagen, BP, Exxon Mobil, Smith Glaxo Kline…the list is long),and increasingly bulging disparities between middle class incomes and the hoards of capital captured by rich elites.

TTIP evinces no deep feelings. It’s hard to get passionate about anything that becomes an acronym. The proposal does arouse ideological arguments, about capitalism, big business, the scarcely veiled agendas of corporate elites, but these fizzle out when you dive into the details, when off-setting provisions, carefully crafted trade-offs and technicalities become the order of the day. Brexit, on the other hand, is laden with emotion, even when one looks at it from afar. How will Europe and the United States adjust to a lesser Great Britain, if it comes to that? I acknowledge the geopolitical significance of multilateral, multi-faceted trade agreements, and the risks inherent in fragmentation. If TTIP is a kind of glue gun to keep the EU from splitting apart at the seams, Britain’s attempts to refashion parts of the EU framework to suit its special interests, including exclusion from financial and labor mobility rules, are like the acid wash that cleans the grout between tiles. Brexit is a similar sort of solvent, on steroids, eating away the grout altogether.

As an outward looking citizen of Montana, excited by the prospects of others’ entrepreneurial success in global markets, especially among small businesses, and cognizant of the positive influence of on wages and salaries in the foreign commercial sector, I can see little harm and much to gain from TTIP. The Trans Atlantic package is the first ever to contain a whole chapter devoted to small and medium-sized businesses, and I don’t believe it’s fantasy to imagine global supply chains connecting multiple networks of miniature transnational firms, advancing the world toward clean energy, clean water, healthy foods, safe and affordable drugs, and, who knows, the peaceful colonization of Mars and the Moon.

I believe that globalization will continue its forward and largely progressive advance, with or without mega-scaled trade agreements. Montana firms have increasing opportunities to access foreign markets, and to add value to global product mandates. As Robert Shapiro put it in 2014, “America’s future prospects to enjoy rising wages and higher levels of employment are increasingly linked to how successfully U.S. businesses can tap into foreign demand.” If TTIP succeeds, sometime in the not-distant future, the hoped for result for middle class jobs will be something like this: Large, transnational firms will choose to remain in their home countries rather than establish subsidiaries abroad. High and low tech manufacturing operations will not need to be relocated to foreign jurisdictions in order to meet product standards and other specifications in customer markets. [Innovative companies in, say, Bozeman, Montana will be able to sell their services directly, without hindrance (save exchange rate and interest rate variabilities) into Germany, or Italy, or any other EU country.

As for any meaningful effect of Brexit in Montana, it’s hard to say. The divorce terms will take years to settle, as will the U.K.’s efforts to forge new trade arrangements with the United States, separate from TTIP. Sterling may take a pounding, as it were, but probably not for long. Tourism and related transportation services make up Montana’s pre-eminent service sector export. A declining pound and a rising dollar will put a dent in that industry, but there won’t be a train wreck.

All things considered, I expect our appetite for appreciation for British goods and cultural exports will be undiminished, as will our appreciation for British bloodlines. Fast food franchises all over America are trending toward 100 percent Angus beef in their burgers. Many of my friends and neighbors are mourning the end of Downton Abbey on public television. I really would like to drive an Aston Martin across the Continental Divide and sport a Huntsman suit, thank you very much, at the Montana Club. Even when it’s emblazoned on unaffordable luxury items, the British brand is alive and well in the wild, wild West. Last words: Maybe the best way to overcome financial and economic setbacks resulting from Brexit would be to fast track another James Bond movie.