by Peter Tweedley
If immigration is the rudder steering the Brexit ship… think ‘HMS Brexit McBrexit’ perhaps…then it is running aground. In the 2016 referendum, the Leave campaign’s major selling point was that Britain would simultaneously cull immigration of Europeans and non-Europeans, and save the government money. Boris Johnson, David Davis and others alleged the money saved would provide 350 million pounds a week for the National Health Service. See the ‘What Does Boris Owe’ twitter page to discover how much Boris owes on this pledge.
Well, two years on, and just under one year to go to the March 2019 B-day, what’s happened to this pledge? With the government’s immigration plans still making daily headlines, where is the ship sailing?
The UK government is desperate to appear to be limiting immigration, regardless of actual success, which more sensible members understand would drastically hurt the economy. It plays well with the Tory base of conservative rural voters, as well as, a misguided sense of patriotism and UKIP populism. See the ‘take back our country’ movement and correlate the “Make America Great Again” propaganda. Some Tories have been trying to play that card for decades, articulated as crudely or not.
In Britain, this accelerated in 2010 with the re-emergence of the Conservative party after the Blair/ Brown Labour party’s 13 years in power. In that time, the Home Office led by Theresa May’s tightened visa restrictions on foreign students, instituted the pledge to cut immigration to the 10’s of thousands. According to the latest statistics released by the Office for National Statistics in February 2018, 244,000 more people left the UK than came in. This includes EU citizens, and is around the same level as in 2014. EU net migration is down, understandably as the atmosphere is not exactly welcoming, but there is still a large net positive immigration count.
The frosty atmosphere for immigrants has not caused any drop in immigration but has only served to heighten and legitimize a puerile form of nationalism. Prime Minister Theresa May and, the Home Office, have had to issue an apology to the thousands of Commonwealth immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean, who came to the UK as children in the 1940’s to 1960’s in what is known as the Windrush generation. Recent tightening of evidence rules regarding settlement in Britain have called into question their ‘Britishness’ and some have been forced to emigrate or to prove their status. This is a massive scandal that is has arguably ruined Amber Rudd’s political career and forcing her resignation. It is the worst case scenario for the government’s immigration policy, and they are losing no time casting blame anywhere they can. It is clear that the nationalistic atmosphere generated by decades of EU bashing, and ‘migrant control policies’ have gone too far with this scandal.
I am concerned that the government won’t learn a lesson from this, and in the future treat EU citizens that have settled in the UK post-Brexit with the same shameful disregard. I’m not alone. Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent Belgian MEP, Member of the European Parliament, has issues a statement which encapsulates the same concern. He is concerned that this is already happening with EU citizens applying for settled status. This is a major concern going into Brexit with the millions of EU citizens expected to stay. If the government cannot keep track of information about the Windrush generation, how can we expect it to in the 21st century with the myriad of evidence they require for those applications?
I have personal experience with this. I recently applied and was granted “leave to remain,” a very British name for this visa, which allows me to stay in the UK and work. This application process took two years and by the end included 150 pages of documents. If that is the process now for one person, imagine the paperwork required for millions in 2019. Something drastic will have to be done in order to achieve anything near a smooth transition.
In the meantime, what about the money? Is industry abandoning the UK along with Immigration’s effect on the British economy and its differences dependent on the locality. Recent reporting by the BBC alleges that the effect will be negative in areas that voted against Brexit, adding salt to the wound. British people are flocking to get European passports. Irish is the most popular given the proximity and the Northern Irish populations eligibility, but it is a popular move all across the EU.
There is already evidence of industry moving to Dublin. In particular, the legal industry has been showing this trend with a huge increase of solicitors registering for the roll in Ireland. There was a scare that all the financial services of London would move to Dublin or to Paris, but so far while there has been less movement than predicted. There could be more coming. In terms of the money Boris and others promised, that remains to be seen as well. But, it is unlikely given the cost of leaving the EU is vast, government spending on new departments and customs alone could eat in to this pledge’s bottom line.
HMS Brexit McBrexit is heading for the rocks unless the new Customs Union proposal being debated this week in the Commons, after the Lords’ amendment of the Brexit Bill can be passed. If this happens, and the UK stays in the common market, then much of what is feared will be less scary, particularly if this could include a deal on financial services, unlike the “Swiss Model.” It would alleviate the Irish border problem, and generally make a lot of sense. But, it would come with the EU’s control over tariffs, no British input into the decision making bodies of the EU, and the inability to cut ties with the EU and make new trade agreements, a central tenant of the Pro-Brexit political philosophy. The amendment could steer the Brexit ship back into harbour, and cause a mutiny. Is it worth it?
Peter Tweedley, LLM GDL MA (Hons) is a political and legal researcher and analyst specializing in European Politics and Human Rights, and educated at City, University of London and the University of St Andrews. Based in London, he is from New York with strong family ties to Hoboken and the Metropolitan New York Community, and based in London, UK.