A week or so before a referendum seems to be when I finally steel myself to post about it here. As my comments over the years have made clear, I’m as pro-EU as they come, which none of the pro-Brexit arguments I’ve read has changed; most are driven by native-born British or English feelings I don’t share, by stereotypes of the EU that misunderstand or misrepresent how it works, by arguments for democracy that dismiss any evidence of EU democracy and ignore any evidence of problems with British democracy, by notions that saving a few pounds a week per household on EU contributions will give us untold riches to spend elsewhere without making any allowance for what those few pounds buy us, by a misguided sense that the struggles of austerity are the fault of EU immigrants or bureaucrats, or by, in some ugly cases, outright racism. I’ve appended some links that rebut these points better than I have time to do here today.
I don’t expect any rebuttals to convince a long-term Brexiter, of course, any more than their arguments have convinced me. But the thought that the undecided voters of Britain—those with no firm commitment either way—are poised to throw the lives of millions into turmoil, millions of Britons living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens living here, for the sake of a protest vote or out of a sense that a radical EU-ectomy might in some vague way help, is hard to bear. So I’m going to address one small part of the debate with direct bearing on my own experience.
No argument for leaving the EU has carried as much weight as concerns about current levels of EU immigration; whatever the other justifications for leaving, Leave is poised to win on the back of those concerns. Some Leavers are anti-immigrant in any form, but because others recognise that immigration is essential for the economic future of an aging Britain (not least, to staff the hospitals that will keep aging Leavers alive), they’ve come up with plans for how it might continue in post-Brexit Britain.
Nigel Farage argued before the last election, and has repeated since, that being able to restrict EU immigration will make room for more immigrants from the Commonwealth, as if this will magically salve any anti-immigrant feelings underpinning the Leave vote. It certainly won’t satisfy anyone who opposes immigration out of a misguided belief that immigrants are stealing their jobs and overwhelming their services. If “the Commonwealth” means all 53 member countries, it won’t satisfy those who object to foreigners of non-British ancestry; Britain’s immigrants in the 1960s and ’70s were from the Commonwealth, or from a near-neighbour long entangled with Britain, and those were the years of rooms being advertised as “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. Even if immigrants are restricted in an overtly racist way to those only a generation or two removed from Blighty—like me, as it happens—I’m pretty sure that anti-immigrant feeling won’t be satisfied; a lifetime of picking up on coded and less-than-coded cues about how the British view Australians has offered little reassurance on that front. (Amusing how Farage describes the Commonwealth in his article as “India, Canada, New Zealand, and beyond”; Australia is used to thinking of itself as Beyond, but from the UK it’s only beyond New Zealand if you’re travelling via Peru.)
But let’s assume for a moment that more members of the British diaspora will be officially encouraged to move to post-EU Britain. Will they?
Plenty of British people have contemplated emigrating to Australia, for better weather, better job opportunities, and better homes and gardens. Plenty of British people with those reasons in mind have asked me over the years why on earth I would move the other way. In my case, it was for an academic job; to spend some time in the heart of the English-speaking world; and to be in Europe. Not only to travel in Europe, but to work alongside Europeans in universities, and to entertain the possibility that I might live and work elsewhere in Europe at some point, as an EU citizen with that freedom. A mauve passport offers a lot more potential than the old black ones did.
Some will argue that as an academic I’m part of the elite who want to Remain out of self-interest, that my privileged position is unrepresentative of working-class Australians who might want to move here, and that I could move to Germany or Sweden on a working visa if it came to that (though at 48 with two young kids, I’m unlikely to move to Berlin at this point). I don’t question that academics are better off than most Britons, and am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, but the point isn’t that I want them just for me. The rich will always be able to pay their way around the world, and university-educated middle-class types will have a shot at getting work visas, but it’s everyone else whose options will be drastically reduced if the barriers go up. Already, Australian bricklayers won’t be tempted to make a new life in London when immigrants have to demonstrate greater than average earnings after five years in order to remain here. Even without that formal requirement, you’d want to be confident that you’ll make enough money here to pay for occasional visits home to family, which don’t come cheap. The only Australians (Indians, Canadians, New Zealanders) contemplating a long-term move to Britain nowadays are likely to be those working in the very sectors where mobility in Europe is a big part of the lure of moving here.
But that mobility shouldn’t just be a lure for potential non-EU immigrants to Britain: it’s the right of everyone in Britain right now, with no minimum-income test, no need for costly work visas tied to specific employers. My first exposure to the phenomenon of builders moving to other European countries in search of work opportunities came not from the Polish carpenter who helped convert our attic a few years back, but from a TV series written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of Ronnie Barker’s 1970s sitcom Porridge. The 1980s ITV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet gave a glimpse of what freedom of movement across the EEC (as the EU then was) meant for the people of Europe. Living abroad was no longer the preserve of Europe’s rich, but an accessible benefit of EEC membership for millions. For a teenager in Tasmania, who enjoyed the right to live and work in five other Australian states, two territories, neighbouring New Zealand, and nowhere else, it was hard not to be impressed by the possibilities, long before I had any idea where my own studies and career would take me. (My Australasian options were more than people enjoy in many countries of the world, no question, but they were still less than Europeans enjoyed.)
There are many things Britons will be giving up if they reject the EU next week. Short-term financial security will be high on the list, with the pound set to crash and many international companies set to relocate. Having a say in the environmental and energy policies of an entire continent will be another. But for me, at the top of the list is the ability to inspire Britain’s young people with the possibility of living and working in any of 27 other European countries for little more than the cost of getting there. Even without a second language, whenever times are hard here but better elsewhere, they can chance their arm in Ireland, or the Spanish costa, or the Low Countries, Germany, or Scandinavia, where English is widely spoken. Once Britain cuts itself off from the continent, that freedom to move will again belong only to the privileged, and countless British kids will know that they’re stuck with whatever opportunities are—or aren’t—available here, unless they can pass the barriers to immigration that the rest of the world puts in their way.
Eighteen-to-24-year-olds know this better than most, which is one reason they’re 75% in favour of remaining. I’m still hoping that the rest of Britain lets them hold onto those dreams.
The EU’s greatest achievement. Our European allies dread Brexit, and they have good reason to fear it. “British isolationism has often been associated with continental disintegration.” “Britain leaving ... degrades the ability of the EU to institutionalise Europe-friendly values and norms in candidate states.”
Brexit’s leaders want to smash the system, but they won’t pay the price. Britain’s eurosceptic regions have the most to lose from EU withdrawal. The Economist’s arguments for voting Remain. Sterling could fall by a third if Britain leaves the EU.
And my final comment on Farage’s Commonwealth proposals:
Why stop at the current Commonwealth? Why not all countries with former links to Britain? In Europe alone, apart from the Commonwealth countries of Cyprus and Malta, that includes Greece (the Ionian Islands), Germany (post-WWII occupation and Heligoland), Spain (Minorca), France (Corsica, and historical English claims to the French throne) and Ireland. Oh, and the Netherlands (because of 1688), the Danes while we’re at it (because of the Danelaw), and of course Italy (because of 43 AD). The alliance between England and Portugal is the oldest still in force, so why not them too. Britain fought a world war over Belgium, so they surely deserve special consideration, and a second one over Poland, so they do too.
Any resemblance between this list and half of the EU is entirely deliberate.