Brexit’s philistine threats

Mass migration into Western Europe today comprises several main groups. First, refugees from conflict in, primarily, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. They have rights under international law to temporary residence in Europe, but nothing more. Second are non-EU economic migrants, mostly fleeing rural sub-Saharan societies undermined by a half-century of drought and desertification, inadequate resources and investment, and growing Islamic extremism. Increased political instability since the 2011 Arab uprisings has also led many from north and east Africa to cross the Mediterranean. These are the ‘push’ factors behind recent mass migration towards Europe. The ‘pull’ factors are European order and prosperity, and geographical proximity.

Non-EU economic migrants, like refugees, have no EU employment rights. Overwhelmingly, they are young men from conservative societies – the women and old left behind to look after the home. Refugees, meanwhile, are more likely to include whole families. But household breakdown is always a danger, either as the cause or consequence of migration from weakened, unsettled societies. So as Anne Hammerstad (‘Population movement and its impact on world politics’ in Beeson and Bisley (eds.) Issues in 21st Century World Politics, Palgrave, 2010) put it ‘the distinction between different categories of migrants … has become increasingly blurred’. But her conclusion does not follow that ‘the combination of youthful and fast-growing populations in many parts of the global South, and an ageing population in many parts of the North, will ensure that a relatively high level of migration remains desirable for both sending and host countries for the foreseeable future.’ No freedom of choice is involved in this impersonal, kill-two-birds-with-one-stone idea of ‘sending’ Southern bodies Northwards; and no amount of financial remittances will repair social breakdown in the South, or remove ingrained corruption there. The Brexit vote will not influence the ‘push’ factors behind Southern mass migration, but may displace all migrants to the rest of Europe – a British NIMBY vote, in effect.

In my view the only decent and workable policy now is to rebuild conflict-torn and impoverished Southern societies so that economic emigration, at least, ceases to appear a desirable life-choice within them. Many migrants should go the other way, from North to South, as we pay our own young and skilled citizens to go abroad on technical assistance – to provide the infrastructure and education which Southern societies lack (foreign investment would then follow more easily). South-to-North migration should be confined to dedicated, temporary trainees; it is immoral for us to have more Malawian nurses in the NHS than in Malawi. These socially-stabilising proposals would require an increase in Northern aid from its standard post-colonial level – 0.7% of GNP – to at least 5%, from all OECD donor-countries, for at least 20 years. (Nordic societies have consistently maintained this level of donation until now.)

A third group of mass migrants is low-skilled EU citizens, moving east-west from poorer member-countries like Romania: leaving behind ruined, uncompetitive, low-paying economies and mass unemployment following the failure of what passed for communism. Brexit will deprive these migrants of permanent rights to work in the UK (though perhaps with a staggered effect for reasons of economic stability). Meanwhile, a theoretical advantage of the Brexiteers’ planned ‘points-based Australian system’ for immigrants is that it could raise skill-levels in the UK economy at large. But not in the population at large. The scheme is a bosses’ initiative to fix the labour market further in their interest – not to train compatriots. It’s a parsimonious, anti-union model, concealed by the rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ from the European Union. Its success will be shown by more, and more British, millionaire-gangmasters boasting that they ‘provide work’ for cooks and chauffeurs.

No-one in the world ‘provides work’ as such. Work is more simply what needs doing (mostly for profit). In all civilised societies, defining its precise aims and conditions is a direct government duty, and beyond that, a general ethical choice. Now the bare ribs of selfish economics are showing in Britain, under the strain of external pressures. It is up to the EU authorities, and those of us who would Remain to co-operate with them, to respond decisively to Brexit’s philistine threats.

Dr Lomas is author of ‘Unnatural States: The International System and the Power to Change’ (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2014).