Populists in the West are building costly

April 23, 2017

US President Donald Trump’s administration has its disputed travel bans, its electronic device bans and the recently ordered “extreme vetting” of visa applicants.

France, which is in the throes of a presidential election, has been encouraged by far-right candi­date Marine Le Pen to focus on pre-empting the threat she discerns from Islam and from immigrants. The April 20 terrorist incident in Paris probably allowed the National Front candidate to feel vindicated in her repeated calls for tighter border controls and restrictions on migrants.

The United Kingdom, where a snap general election has been called by Prime Minister Theresa May, is likely to discuss reduced immigration throughout the campaign much as it did before last June’s Brexit referendum.

Australia has announced it will toughen visa requirements for foreign workers to prioritise “Australian jobs and Australian values.” New Zealand has done something similar.

Everywhere one turns, countries are throwing up new barriers to entry, in word and in deed, and reversing the process of cross-cultural contacts that marked the past decades.

Like other nationalist voices, Le Pen has attacked multicultural societies as sources of domestic conflict and as a threat to cultural identity.

The uniting theme of these disparate populist narratives in the West is Islamophobia, immigrant-bashing and an invidious form of economic nationalism that does not sit well with an intercon­nected world and its globalised chains of supply and demand. They have already led to some immediately quantifiable effects.

The travel and tourism business has been affected. Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, has said it would fly less often to five US cities from next month because Trump’s security rules have depressed demand in the Middle East. Marriott, the world’s largest hotel operator, says bookings from the Middle East and North Africa were down by as much as 30% in February.

The so-called Trump Slump is also affecting college applications from the region with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) reporting a fall of 39% and 31% for undergraduate and graduate students, respec­tively.

The social tensions caused by these populist narratives may be matched by economic disruption wrought by the protectionist policies they advocate.

In recent days, the International Monetary Fund obliquely referenced Trump, Le Pen and Britain’s Brexiteers when it warned that global growth may suffer because the “post-world war two system of international economic relations is under severe strain.”

That is an understatement. The West’s nationalists march to the same drum, even though they are at different points on the political spectrum. They seek to favour domestic producers, domestic workers and home-grown “cultural values” — whatever these might mean — and they want to restrict the flow of goods and people across their borders. Their vision is of a world walled off by invisible barriers.

Ultimately though, the long-term costs of such a vision will outweigh any short-term dividends.

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