As the Brexit fiasco train rolls on, Prime Minister Theresa May’s own anti-immigration stance remains an obstacle in the way of reaching any sort of reasonable destination.

There are of course many contentious elements to Brexit – Cameron’s decision to call the referendum and support membership despite his refusal to say anything positive about the EU; his underlying motivations; his strategy of sending advisors who were already unpopular with EU policy-makers on a futile mission to renegotiate the EU’s fundamental principles in three months; the lies of the campaign itself on top of the 30 years of misinformation; and so on. Leave aside all of that and pick up the story when May enters the stage. The people have voted, the result is in and the UK is leaving whatever the rights and wrongs, and May, at least initially, looked like a reassuring figure after the post-referendum chaos.

Then, in the tradition of all recent UK Prime Ministers, she made one fatal error, stemming from a combination of hubris and ignorance. She decided to use the situation to further her own, longstanding anti-immigration agenda. The decision to go for the hardest of Brexits was based on prioritising the end of freedom of movement above all else, including the national interest. The approach was set out with a coating of nasty and rather silly nationalist rhetoric at the Conservative Party conference and in the Lancaster House speech. It severely limited the UK’s own negotiating position and is the reason why the process has a reached a dead-end rather.

But the referendum was about immigration, some would argue, including May herself, who constantly repeats her mantra that the British people voted to end free movement and to leave the single market and a whole other list of things that they supposedly voted for. In fact, as the more rigorous research on the referendum shows, there were multiple reasons why the 52 % voted to leave. Yes, immigration was part of it, but sovereignty, global aspirations, affinity with the Anglophone world, a dislike of bureaucracy and “Brussels”, frustration with the political class as a whole and other factors, were all part of the mix.

Taking the position that the result has to be respected, what is it actually that should be respected? The point of a referendum is that it is simple and asks one (or a few) straightforward questions. In this case, the question on the ballot paper was: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? It did not say, Do you want to end immigration? Or even, Do you want to leave the single market?

Wider interpretations of the result and extrapolations from it are political choices, in this case the choice of the Prime Minister who as interior minister had developed a harsh policy, including a large-scale immigration detention and deportation programme (supported by EU funds) and putting in place a hostile environment for asylum seekers and migrants to reduce “pull factors” (even though study after study in the UK showed that these didn’t actually exist).

These policies and her subsequent interpretation of the referendum were based on a belief that this is what the “British people want”. In that, it resonates with the justification for restrictive migration and asylum policies that we hear from politicians across Europe and also from technocrats who have even less of an excuse for populism. When widely available public opinion surveys show a different or more complex story, they are ignored.

It is certainly true that a particular segment of the British public, Conservative Party members, are strongly anti-immigration, and for them, ending immigration may be the point of Brexit, but they are not the “British people” (0.19 % of it in fact) and even the party’s voters and its MPs are somewhat softer on the issue. In any case, one of the ironies of the whole matter is that Brexit is likely to lead to a large increase in non-European immigration so anyone who voted on that basis will be disappointed.

In the end, the destination of the UK’s Brexit train is likely to be Norway (or Norway and Turkey, i.e. single market and Customs Union) but it will take a long time to get there, with a lot more disasters and irreparable damage en route. The rest of the world wants to move on but watches the UK’s descent with a mixture of fear and Schadenfreude. In the UK, Brexit will dominate politics and the wider public debate for the next five years at least; there is no other political topic. Everyone has their own interpretations, debates, frustrations and stories about the debacle. One of those stories is all-too-common across contemporary Europe: a politician deciding because of their own political preferences that the public don’t want immigration, and interpreting everything through the anti-immigration lens – and creating a national economic disaster as a consequence.

Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)


Photo: (CC) Guiseppe Milo, November 2017

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.