Most of the factors threatening Britain’s place in Europe have nothing to do with the EU
In a memorable recent television debate dominated by strong, articulate, piercingly intelligent women (Angela Eagle, Nicola Sturgeon, Amber Rudd, Gisela Stuart, Andrea Leadsom – where were Caroline Lucas and Maria Eagle? Yvette Cooper, even?), an angry Angela Eagle pointed out that the problems of immigration on which the anti-EU team had based most of their case for leaving the European Union actually had nothing to do with the EU: “You people are obsessed with immigration!”, she said in her crisp testy way. The point was valid and relevant and it deserves further discussion. The Remain campaign has plainly won the economic argument for Britain to stay in the EU – the Leavers are reduced to the feeble responses that serious fact-based warnings are merely “scaremongering” and that the public are fed up with the “experts” who point to the inevitable damage to the economy if Brexit wins, and who have “always been wrong in the past”. So the Leavers have fallen back on exploiting ordinary people’s genuine – and partially justified — anger, fears and resentments over high levels of immigration. How far is this issue a valid reason for Britain to vote for Brexit in 11 days’ time? Hardly at all. Why is immigration such a toxic issue for the common-sense Remain campaign?
A number of misfortunes, some of them tragedies, have come together at roughly the same time to aggravate popular anger and fear over immigration:
The increasing difficulties in providing prompt and reliable service of crucial public services, notably the NHS (hospitals, GPs, care), schools and housing. These are widely blamed on increased demand caused by the inflow of immigrants, which must indeed be a factor, mainly in specific areas where large numbers of immigrants have settled. But these pressures and defects are attributable to the failure of local and (especially) central government to expand all these services wherever expansion is required by population expansion, just as certain kinds of services need to be expanded to meet the special needs of an ageing native population. It is not immigration, immigrants or old people who are to blame for these deficiencies in fundamental social services, still less the EU: those responsible are a government that has remorselessly cut basic services and funding to local authorities tasked to provide them, instead of expanding them to meet expanding need – and other political leaders who have been afraid to challenge the economic illiteracy of Austerity.
The huge increase in refugees bursting into Europe to escape the continuing mayhem and slaughter in the middle east, some of it attributable to ignorant and myopic meddling by western governments but none of it connected, even indirectly, with UK membership of the EU. The European refugee problem has aggravated fears in Britain of a further massive increase in inward migration by refugees and the EU is wrongly blamed for our alleged inability to control or prevent it. In fact, since almost all the refugees come from outside the EU, we have unrestricted power to limit it as much or as little as we wish. The prime minister has successfully exempted Britain from any EU system of refugee quotas by country, on the grounds that we are not part of the Schengen open border system, although some of us believe that Britain, as one of the wealthiest EU countries, has a moral responsibility to take its fair share of these unfortunate people – and to provide the housing and health and education services to enable them to live decent lives in our country. That moral responsibility would exist whether we are in or out of the EU, so it’s not relevant to the Brexit debate.
The international banking crisis of 2007-08 (for which the EU as such had no responsibility) caused a severe global recession from which Britain’s recovery has been among the slowest and most uncertain of the western world. Successive coalition and Tory governments have chosen to deal with the recession by means of policies which have placed a major burden on those in our society least able to bear it while ensuring that the most prosperous are not seriously inconvenienced. This manifest injustice, seriously widening the already gross inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, has aggravated public anger with “the Establishment”, the experts and the economists. People who have seen their incomes either decline or flat-line for nearly a decade, through no fault of their own, are justifiably angry and disillusioned about the whole system which has failed them. When the well-heeled managers of the system tells them that it’s in the country’s interests to remain in the EU, and a handful of populist politicians tell them that all the obstacles to a faster recovery are down to the cost of Britain’s EU membership, it’s hardly surprising that the Brexiteers seem to have the more convincing case – although their case is fundamentally mendacious. The net financial cost to Britain of our membership of the EU, with all the trade and social benefits it brings, is less than 1 percent of our GDP – in other words, peanuts. As the economist Owen Barder (yes, we are by chance related) has recently pointed out on Facebook, “the overall net cost [of UK membership of the EU] is about £135 million a week (that is £13 billion a year net contribution, minus £4.5 bn a year public sector receipts, minus £1.4 bn a year private sector receipts, which is £7bn a year). That isn’t trivial, but if leaving the EU means that UK GDP were lower by half of one percent than it would otherwise be, then the economy would have lost more than our overall EU contributions. That’s aside from other benefits we get from EU membership.” It’s nonsense to blame current economic problems, shortages and injustices on the cost of our EU membership.
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the travails of the Eurozone and their disastrous consequences for Greece and other southern tier EU countries came to a head shortly before the British people are called upon to decide whether to stay in the EU. Eurozone problems arise from a number of factors, including the extreme difficulty of managing a currency shared by independent countries with widely varying terms of trade and interest rate needs, Germany’s massive advantage from the Euro from its huge trade surplus at the expense of corresponding deficits on the part of some of its EU trade partners, and the insistence of the EU’s most powerful members, led by Germany, on imposing on Greece and some other debtor EU countries policies of extreme austerity that seem calculated further to impoverish them rather than to boost their recovery. Since the UK has not adopted the Euro, and has received an exemption from any future obligation to adopt it, these crises of the Eurozone and its members have no direct implications for the decision about Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. But these acute problems have been exploited by the Leave camp to represent the EU itself as a failure from which Britain will be prudent to disengage before it collapses altogether.
Some of the angst about immigration is clearly rooted in xenophobia, and some of it in racism. Communities are inevitably changed by the arrival of serious numbers of immigrants, especially if they are culturally or racially distinctive, and if their behaviour tends to be offensive to the original natives – loud pop music from the open windows of battered cars, no more orderly queues for the bus, raised petty and less petty crime rates, and so on. This is disturbing to the peaceful lives of many British people, many of them from immigrant families themselves. There is also the unshakable conviction that immigrants take jobs from native British workers and depress their wage levels by their willingness to work for less money. This is reinforced by the reality that it can be true for a limited time, in specific sectors of the economy and in specific areas of high immigrant settlement. But it is negated by the facts that there is no limited pool of jobs, so a migrant getting a job need not reduce the number of jobs available for natives, and that on any reckoning immigrants as a whole contribute more to the British economy than they take out of it and that this actually creates new jobs rather than reducing them. But in any case, these have always been problems associated with immigration, whether by Huguenots, the Irish, Jews, West Indians, migrants from the Indian sub-continent, Asians from East Africa, or more recently Poles and Hungarians and others from other EU countries, many of them highly skilled and qualified and willing to take jobs here for which they are wretchedly over-qualified. We have always been able to absorb successive waves of immigrants without any serious challenges to our national identity. Our public services would collapse without immigrants to staff them. As an ageing population we need a regular infusion of young men and women whose taxes will help to pay for the pensions and extra health needs of the old. Immigration will continue whether or not we stay in the EU. More than half our immigrants come from outside the EU, and the EU principle of freedom of movement within the Union imposes no restrictions whatever on our freedom to “control”, limit or even prevent non-EU immigration as much or as little as we like. Once again, these factors contributing to the current angst about immigration have very little if anything to do with the arguments for or against Brexit.
Muslim immigrants, many of them easily identified as such by their dress, arouse anxieties among some British and other people because of aspects of Islam that are deemed incompatible with liberal western values (treatment of women, barbarous punishments under Shari’a law for offences not recognised as criminal or even objectionable in the west, and so forth), and above all because of the association in many people’s minds between Islam and terrorism. These anxieties can’t be dismissed as wholly irrational or necessarily racist, although racial prejudice no doubt sometimes plays a part in arousing them. But almost no EU immigrants are Muslims, so EU freedom of movement within the EU is irrelevant to this cause of anxiety about immigration.
The only possible conclusion from this analysis is that hardly any of the factors used by the Brexiteers as arguments for voting to leave the EU are actually connected to EU policies or practices, and inasmuch as they reflect real life problems (as many of them do), they will remain problems whether or not we vote to leave the European Union. Some of them indeed constitute challenges which are better tackled in collaboration with our fellow-Europeans than in isolation from them. The case for Brexit is simply unsustainable.