Brexit was a victory for nativism over rationality
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union involved many issues but, by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s own post-mortem reckoning, the “driving force” was immigration. More precisely, the anti-immigrant sentiment that has been surging in the United Kingdom for several years.
Unlike in continental Europe, the main target of anti-immigrant passion in Britain traditionally has been Eastern Europeans, not Arabs and Africans. Because of the European Union’s open-border policy, when Eastern Europe countries joined the bloc in 2004, their citizens gained the right to move to and work in the United Kingdom, leading to grumbling about the “Polish plumbers” taking away British jobs.
However, the images of migrant camps in Calais just across the English Channel and the knowledge that the thousands of Arabs and Africans who might be granted asylum in any other EU country could end up on English high streets added to the British voters’ angst.
The most common and publicly expressed arguments against immigration are economic: Immigrants will take jobs, work for less money, spend less money and provide inferior quality of work. Study after study, however, shows that the economic argument against immigration does not hold water.
In the case of Brexit, in particular, the economic loss that comes from withdrawing from the world’s single largest economy far outweighs any short-term economic costs associated with immigration. Pleading economics to support Brexit is, frankly, Bullxit.
Philippe Legrain, professor at the London School of Economics and former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission, conducted a comprehensive economic analysis for the Tent Foundation. The ensuing report, released in May, concluded: “Investing one euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years… policymakers and practitioners should stop considering refugees as a ‘burden’ to be shared but rather as an opportunity to be welcomed.”
The economic argument for immigration is especially stronger in the ageing societies that characterise Europe.
“Ageing societies with a shrinking native working age population, such as Germany’s, benefit from the arrival of younger refugees whose skills complement those of older, more experienced workers,” Legrain wrote. “Refugees can also help care and pay for the swelling ranks of pensioners.”
Moreover, immigrants normally engage in what Legrain terms “4-d work” — dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull — that even unemployed Europeans do not want to do.
So, if the anti-immigrant sentiment is economically groundless, why is it so powerful — and why did it just lead British voters to make a decision that many “Leave” supporters are ruing?
Nigel Farage, leader of the nativist UK Independence Party, answered the question. Before the referendum, Farage told the Guardian that immigration causes “change in our communities that has left many people in our towns and cities frankly finding it difficult to recognise the place being the same as it was ten to 15 years ago.”
When told of the economic benefits of immigration, Farage responded, “There is more to this country and the make-up of communities and our way of life frankly than just GDP (gross domestic product) figures.”
Farage speaks for millions of people across Europe. As the forces of globalisation have spread relentlessly — intertwining economies, shortening geographic distances, removing barriers to communication, allowing regional conflicts to metastasise worldwide — there is a growing counter-reaction, which, for lack of a better term, can be called “localisation.” Inherent in localisation is a sense of “us” and “them,” of those who belong here and those who do not.
Localisers exaggerate the dangers: Current projections are that by 2030 Europe’s population will be 8% Muslim, which means it will be 92% non-Muslim. There is no invasion coming. (To be fair, advocates of globalisation also exaggerate the benefits of a phenomenon that, in fact, has produced both great wealth and great inequality.)
The US presidential election is in many ways a battle between globalisers and localisers but the outcome will most likely be different. For one, the United States was built on immigration. Immigrants face initial hostility but assimilation happens remarkably fast in the United States. Moreover, American voters reflect a far broader hue than British voters: 87% of UK voters are white, while 69% of the US electorate is white (down from 71% four years ago).
Two major demographic fault lines characterise the world today: The Mediterranean and the Rio Grande (the British have just voted to add the English Channel to that list). On each fault line, the northern side is a magnet for distressed people on the southern side. This will not change in the foreseeable future. How the respective northern sides deal with the underlying issues, such as war and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as with popular sentiments will dominate the political agendas in Europe and the United States for some time to come.