Last week, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a vote that divided the country by “age, class and geography.” The decision send shock waves through the rest of Europe, and it remains to be seen how many of the aftershocks will play out.
The question of the nation’s response to migration played a fundamental role, as perhaps best visualized by the misleading Brexit poster below. The poster features images of Syrian refugees at the Slovenian border. The Brexit campaign purposefully misconstrued the image to imply that all these refugees will overrun Britain. Racist in nature and likened to Nazi style propaganda, the poster visualizes how central xenophobia and the fear of loss of control of national borders was in the Brexit campaign. The leave campaign encouraged xenophobic fears. The Leave faction distorted the humanitarian tragedy of Syrian refugees arriving at Europe's border to imply that they will overrun Britain, unless it leaves the UK. In reality, Britain has pledged to take in less than quarter of what its EU quota would be, amounting to 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.
Since the Brexit vote, the UK witnessed a spike in xenophobic attacks. Anonymous right-wing attackers chose Polish and Muslim residents as clear targets. They defaced Polish cultural centers and embassies and posted posters and postcards asking Poles to leave on a number of properties in Cambridge.
Of course, the Brexit vote exposed deep divisions within the United Kingdom beyond the attitudes around immigration. Underlying these divisions are many uncomfortable truths. For one, many European citizens perceive the European Union as elitist and non-democratic, suffering “a dramatic deficit of democracy, as well as of loyalty.” This sense of alienation reverberates across Europe: it feeds the right wing parties’ rise in much of Europe, but it also reflects centrist and leftist frustration’s across Europe’s disparate countries. Whether the Brexit will fuel these nationalist sentiments remains to be seen. I am worried about this possibility, as both Germany and France will head into elections campaigns soon.
Another poignant truth is that an underclass of rural, working class and older people, who have benefited far less from European integration than their young and urban counterparts, championed Euro-skepticism and Brexit. According to the exit polls, youth and those with higher education and/or median income voted to stay. In the UK socioeconomic status and education often correlate.
Despite the association between economic hardship and the preference for a Brexit, in the campaign, immigration was central. In a similar project to mine, Mike Carter walked across much of Britain, and described industrial communities left behind, poverty, healthcare problems and a feeling of economic defeat. In the words of many, immigrants were the scapegoat for larger economic malaise.
Thus, immigration is the prism, through which some of the country’s other divisions crystallize. In the words of Guardian Commentator Owen Jones:
Above all else, it was about immigration, which has become the prism through which millions of people see everyday problems: the lack of affordable housing; the lack of secure jobs; stagnating living standards; strained public services. Young remainers living in major urban centres tend to feel limited hostility towards immigration; it could hardly be more different for older working-class leavers in many northern cities and smaller towns.
According to opinion poll research conducted by Oxford university, roughly three quarters of Britain's population wishes to reduce immigration. While these are particularly high levels, it appears that some popular opposition to immigration dates back to the 1960s. However, in terms of electoral politics, the issue gained salience in the last two decades: only recently have the British people cited it as one of the most important public policy challenges. In this campaign, the leave campaign and sympathetic media constructed a narrative, in which the migrants were at the forefront Britain’s rural economic hardship. The Leave campaign actively stoked the resentment by misrepresenting the root causes of economic hardship. In the words of Asad Rehman, chair of the London-based anti-racist Newham Monitoring Project:
It’s been a systematic, month after month of the mainstream rightwing newspapers running story after story of the threat of migrants, to create the concept that the answer is about the borders, not about inequality, neoliberal globalization or the [potential] drivers of the anger.
This focus on immigration persisted even though scientific data debunks most claims of migrants hurting the British economy. Statements that do not stand up to scrutiny include, whether it migrants cost the UK government more than nationals (migrant workers rely less on the British welfare services, but pay more taxes); whether migrants cause a rise to housing prices (there is no proven correlation between immigration and London’s housing market, other than the increase of skilled construction labor helps the helps the expansion of housing) and whether immigration deflates the wages of those, who voted for Brexit. Instead, data indicates mass immigration fueled the British economy, and Britain sports some of the highest educated migrants, who bring innovations and industrial growth.
It remains to be seen, whether immigration will slow post Brexit. Should Britain enter a recession, immigration will likely decline naturally, as those with options will look for economic opportunities in more vibrant economies. In the short term however, there may very well be a surge in immigration, as EU residents try to access the labor market before the divorce. Simultaneously, migrants and refugees in the notorious Calais border camp expressed new hope: The French Calais mayor called for Britain to take back its border to its mainland and process asylum requests there. Many migrants are hoping that France will be laxer in patrolling the access to the British tunnel, and they rejoice in the fact that if Britain does leave the EU, the government opts out of the possibility to send migrants back to the first receiving country (the current EU regime under the Dublin treaty).
In terms of policy, Britain is now left with the unenviable task of designing an alternative immigration system. Currently, immigration levels from within and without the European Union are almost exactly half, so the Brexit would potentially restrict the 49.5% if European immigration. The proposed alternative is an Australian point system to attract skilled migrants, which is similar to the current system for non-EU migrant visas. In another irony, this system was initially designed to attract more migrants.
Already, questions about whether the UK can deliver on the Leave’s campaign’s promise to restrain migration to a third of its current levels abound. The Leave Campaign is backpedaling on this promise: politicians are admitting that immigration will be unlikely to fall even with a new system, and stress that immigrants already in the UK will be allowed to remain.
The reason for this pivot is a recognition that migration is key to UK’s economy and trading arrangements. Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan admitted this weekend that in order to keep the current level of trading, the UK may need to accept free movement of EU migrants. Many of the EU’s countries have vested economic interest in keeping the open movement of labor. Poland, which accounts for 850,000 immigrants to the UK, already vowed to make the status quo on labor access a key demand for Eu trade negotiations.
Personally, I am worried how the Brexit will influence EU policy towards the current the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the increasing flows of desperate migrants arriving on EU’s shores. Many European countries are undergoing the same rise in populism, right-wing tendencies and Euro-skepticism, which fueled the Brexit campaign. If the rise of right wing parties around Europe are any indication, a significant portion of Europe is pushing for a focus on deterrence and interdiction, rather than policies to tackle the humanitarian crisis, or to absorb and integrate the refugees and migrants. These popular demands lead to Europe’s current incongruent policy responses: an EU Turkey deal, which treats migrants as chess pieces, shipping them back to Turkey to process their claims there; and a system, in which border countries like Greece and Italy bear the brunt on the burden of the current crisis.
Will European leaders, like Merkel and Hollande, look at the Brexit, and move towards more border control and scattered nationalist responses? Or will they look at the Brexit as a sign that Europe should work towards finding a common solution to a protracted humanitarian crisis as a way to assuage the sense of powerlessness among its citizenry?