UKip, the UK and the EU: what next?

by George Hatjoullis

ReaptriationThe political context in the UK is not benign and it will have significant economic and market impact over the next year. The issue is whether UKip can force a referendum on continuing membership of the EU and, if so, whether a sufficient majority will vote to remove the UK. David Cameron’s Conservative party speaks of renegotiation of powers rather than exit but another Conservative party evidently is closer to the UKip position, and indeed much of UKip’s support comes from disaffected Conservatives. Some even speak of a ‘pact’ though what this would entail is unclear as UKip has no UK parliament seats as yet.

UKip was formed in order to promote the idea of exit from the EU. There is a logic to this position and it has been outlined in my several blogs on the EU and the eurozone crisis. The crisis has focused attention on the need to reshape the EU to suit the needs of the eurozone. The two-tier EU, once a constant subject of discussion, is again relevant. The arguments need not be repeated here but the UK will either eventually need to join the eurozone or accept a peripheral status within an increasingly Eurocentric entity. Joining the eurozone is not an obviously good idea so the prospect of peripheral status is real. It is legitimate to question whether the UK benefits from continuing membership in a peripheral status and on this issue UKip has a valid argument to make. However, the support for, and public profile of, UKip does not rest on this complex but logically valid issue.

The focus of attention from UKip is on the single market and the fact that it relieves the UK of control of intra-EU migration. The claims of UKip may be extreme but they are not technically incorrect. The UK has very little control over migration into the UK from other EU states. By the same token these states cannot stop UK citizens migrating to their jurisdictions either and many UK citizens do in fact reside elsewhere in the EU. Ironically, some surveys suggest that these foreign resident UK citizens are potential UKip supporters (go figure!). The support for Ukip is largely driven by the issue of immigration and the lack of control that the single market imposes. Other EU countries have similar political movements driven by exactly the same issue. For someone of my advanced age and with experience of the politics of race, culture and immigration, the idea that the UK is going to leave the EU because it fears an influx of white, christian, Europeans seems a bit odd. There is a great deal more going on here. Although the official UKip position focuses on the potential influx of white, christian, Europeans from other EU states, the supporters and voters are happy to conflate the EU issue with that of immigration in general. This is evident from utterances from extreme members (some of whom have been wisely ejected from the party by the Farage team) and many street interviews of UKip supporters reported in the media. This is odd because the single market does not restrict the UK from imposing immigration controls on non-EU nations. It is clear that UKip is drawing support from that proportion of the population that will always seek to differentiate some group as ‘other’ and discriminate against the group. Although I have not done the research (and am unlikely to do so), I would speculate that UKip’s support is strong in those areas that have significant non-EU migrant populations, or fear it. The notable exception is London.

At the moment London appears to be a UKip-free zone. Areas east of London have some UKip interest but these have always been keen to reject groups defined as ‘other’. The London phenomenon is interesting and instructive. London has an ethnically and culturally mixed population. However, the experience of London with migration is largely positive. The London economy is strong ( and never seems to dip very much) and there is a wide spectrum of migrants, low skilled and highly skilled. The population is multicultural, multiethnic, educated, cultured and, most important, young. The housing market is overheating and this is causing the offspring of Londoners (like me) some problems but no one is arguing that it is migration that is the problem. The reason is that London always has had migration, and if it is not from other EU states, it is from Newcastle, Scotland etc. Migration is part of the dynamism that keeps London prosperous. Of course, there are social consequences and these are not insignificant. The character of whole areas has changed, but then the character of these areas has changed many times before. The history of Brick Lane and the surrounding streets is a case in point.

The same phenomenon that is part of the fabric of London is the cause of anxiety and distress in other parts of the UK and this is fuelling the UKip support. The success of UKip is through providing a conduit for these feelings of unhappiness to be expressed in an acceptable context. The real unhappiness may be about a non-EU community in the parish, but it is easier to express it in terms of the EU, single market and unrestricted potential migration. After all, no one can question the unrestricted potential of EU migration. Technically it is a valid position.

The true position is revealed by less well publicised surveys. One YouGov survey that I have seen (above) suggests that a majority of UKip supporters would support voluntary repatriation of all immigrants. This is not official UKip policy and indeed Nigel Farage has been quite clear that it is not on the agenda. However, immigrants and the children of immigrants might be forgiven for wondering whether, given such sentiments, it might not enter the agenda (and worse) if the UK left the EU and UKip achieved power. It does rather make one wonder what the members of the ethnic minorities that support UKip are thinking. It also raises the thorny question of when does a descendant of immigrants cease to be an immigrant and become local? The question for the pro-EU camp is how to combat the potent immigration issue. One cannot simply dismiss it in the EU context. There are three distinct aspects; illegal immigration, asylum and intra-EU economic migration ( I am assuming that legal economic migration  from non-EU countries is not an issue as it can be restricted).

Illegal immigration is a problem for the EU and has not been addressed in an effective manner. Some countries such as Italy, Cyprus and Greece have been key points of entry and have been left to police the borders without adequate support. My own ethnicity stems from Cyprus and Greece so I have had the opportunity to see things from the other perspective and can understand the strength of feeling this issue is causing even though I am not necessarily inclined towards the extreme responses that it elicits from some. The EU needs to provide much more financial and technical support to these front-line states in combating  illegal immigration and it should make a big, public, deal of doing so. Much illegal immigration into the UK originates from the EU and eliminating this, and being seen to eliminate this, would help dampen the anxiety that is feeding the anti-EU camp in the UK. It’s not rocket science.

Asylum is a much more difficult issue. No one wants to send someone back to torture and/or death. However, the location of asylum seekers within the EU needs awareness of local sensitivities and conditions. An EU-wide approach to asylum (with EU funding) might be better, allowing more sensitive dispersal as necessary. If the EU were to introduce such an agency it might make a material difference to those countries bearing the burden and perhaps not handling the issues that well. The conditions under which illegal immigrants and asylum seekers are held often leaves something to be desired and an EU-wide response might also benefit these unfortunate people. The EU can do much more to remove illegal immigration and asylum from the in/out debate in the UK and in other states. Perhaps it is time this lumbering edifice got its bureaucratic act together.

Economic migration within the EU is much more complex. Freedom for economic migration is the essence of the single market. It is true, as I have heard UKip supporters remark, that Australia, the USA and Canada have strict immigration controls but movement within these nations is unrestricted. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to conclude that the single market seeks to make the EU one nation in this respect and thus constitutes a political union, at least in part. It is not unreasonable for the individuals of the member states to object to such a creeping political union or, indeed, to support it. It is a legitimate matter for debate. It is also a legitimate matter for reform and renegotiation. It may be possible for the main benefits of the single market to be retained with some modification of the freedom of economic migration rules in relation to benefits, accommodation and availability of work. It is a discussion worth having if only to determine the facts. Whether modification would suffice to mollify UKip support however is unclear. I rather doubt it.

The EU project has always been a creeping political union.The populations have acquiesced without fully grasping the significance but in recent years a significant proportion of the population of member states has begun to balk at the direction. In the UK the issue of unrestricted EU migration has provided a respectable umbrella for those that are ( always have been and always will be) unhappy about non-EU migration, to give vent to their spleen. This conflation of issues could drive the UK towards exit from the EU for all the wrong reasons. The pro-EU camp cannot simply dismiss this development with name calling. The EU commission should also be doing much more. It is time to discuss the issues and confront some ugly truths.