By Yossi Mekelberg*
Asking the British people in a referendum for their opinion about Brexit was meant to bring to an end, at long last, the divisions within British society over the EU. Since the UK joined the European Common Market in 1973, this issue has dominated and poisoned discourse.
The June 2016 referendum was like a penalty shoot-out, producing a decisive winner regardless of the inadequate manner in which it was achieved. Instead it highlighted very powerfully that the British people were divided on this issue almost right down the middle. Even worse, the result that gave a slight majority to the Brexiteers exposed most politicians as out of touch and totally unprepared.
The intricate nature of EU membership makes it a long and complex process to join, and leaving it is proving to be a nightmare for both the EU and the UK. As such it should not come as a surprise that the negotiations in these early stages are tense and progress is slow. There is no precedent, and both sides start from acutely different positions. They are more interested in keeping their own constituencies content than in reaching an agreement. This is particularly true of the UK, whose political system has experienced a massive earthquake. First, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to resign the day after the referendum; then a year later an ill-conceived general election declared by Cameron’s successor Theresa May sent her back in 10 Downing Street, but having lost her majority in Parliament. It is doubtful that she will still be in office in March 2019, when the UK leaves the EU.
At the heart of the Brexit saga has been the issue of immigration, and a leaked document last week from the Home Office, Britain’s Interior Ministry, revealed its thinking on post-Brexit immigration from the EU. The bottom line of this document is that the British government is determined to end the free movement of labor as soon as it leaves the EU. With the exception of highly skilled EU workers, the aim is to reduce substantially the number of lower-skilled EU migrants, allowing them the right to work in the UK for a maximum of two years. This approach may not be unexpected, as it is a true reflection of a government that is ideologically anti-immigration and anti-migrant. Nevertheless, it also reveals that it is a government that is ready to pursue a policy even when there is mounting evidence against it.
A recent survey by auditors KPMG suggests that nearly half of EU nationals working in the UK are thinking about leaving. The younger, better qualified and higher paid are the most likely to be considering leaving. The dire consequences of a serious brain drain need no elaboration. Low-skilled workers are also much needed and are not going to be replaced by British workers. Moreover, the offensive language used against migrants by British officials has become off-putting to many who now feel less valued and less welcome in the UK. It is the highly skilled among them who by the nature of their skills are the most mobile, and will look for opportunities elsewhere. It is more than likely that in a matter of very few years a severe shortage of doctors, nurses, engineers, academics and managers will hit the British economy hard.
Isn’t it time for the British government to come clean with its own people about the real cost of Brexit and the pitfalls if concessions are not made? The immediate, pressing issues are an exit bill that could be up to €60 billion, the border between the north and south in Ireland, and the right of EU citizens in the UK to stay indefinitely. These are three massive issues for which the European negotiators are holding May and her government responsible and demanding that they come up with viable suggestions. Otherwise the UK is risking its access to the single market, which is so vital to British economic interests.
There is no escape from the fact that the EU is founded on the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labor. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, put it in her own straightforward style in a speech in which she restated that Europe’s “four freedoms” are not for picking and mixing, but are inseparable. If the UK is to stand any chance of remaining inside the single market, it will also have to make far-reaching concessions on the free movement of labor.
As the Brexit clock ticks, the British government, and those who supported leaving the EU, have to accept that enjoying the privileges and benefits of being a member of the single market will require a sea change in their views on immigration. For too long some sections of British politics, society and the xenophobic right-wing media have hijacked the debate about Europe and immigration. If there is a silver lining to Brexit it is that it has laid bare not only the ugliness of nationalistic jingoism, but also how damaging it is to Britain’s national interests.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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