Brexit and Immigration: What does an end to freedom of movement mean for Britain?

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Alex Illingworth asserts some home truths about Brexit and immigration

We all know that the words Brexit and immigration have been fundamentally linked from the very beginning of the European Union controversy. There are some who would rather we did not talk about Brexit in terms of immigration, and some who believe it to remain the crux of the entire affair. Lord Ashcroft’s research released after the Brexit referendum itself showed that whilst the most important issue for Leavers as a whole was the question of sovereignty, control over immigration and borders came a close second. But what does Brexit and immigration mean for Britain? What would a post-freedom of movement UK look like? And is European immigration actually the problem at all?

National Sovereignty Concerns Immigration

We should begin with a simple assertion: whilst the most important motive behind those who voted Leave was “The principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”, which I have called the question of sovereignty, I would submit that the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ cannot exist without total control over borders and immigration. Indeed, this makes it much more difficult for those Leavers who have deflected attention away from the problem of immigration to pretend that they cared less about immigration than they did sovereignty. The assertion, therefore, is this:

National sovereignty = border control

There is no mutual exclusivity between these two terms, and it would be a great deal more honest of Leavers who prefer to talk about “national sovereignty” if they would not shy away from discussions about why immigration was a major issue during the referendum debates.

Localism must replace Globalism

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Now that we have dealt with that problem, we shall first consider immigration itself. For many conservatives, the very idea of freedom of movement across a whole continent strikes us as ridiculous. Equally, for many (though certainly not all) who voted Remain, the very idea of national borders seem ridiculous. The debate surrounding Brexit and immigration has uncovered an ancient distinction in British politics, a distinction dating back to the time of Burke. In 1789, as Burke was beginning to formulate his response to the events of the French Revolution, Dr Richard Price published his Discourse on the Love of Our Country, where he argued that the people of Britain ought to view themselves “more as citizens of the world than as members of any particular community.” His argument was resurrected by many Remainers; unfortunately for them, many Britons are as-yet unwilling to shed their deep connexion to their nation. The distinction between those who oppose freedom of movement versus those who support it is as much a philosophical divide as single-issue political one. It is an existential question for the British: how do we view ourselves? Do we see ourselves as people who come from x local community in Britain who happen to live on planet Earth; or do we see ourselves as people of planet Earth who happen to live in x local community. The opposition between localism and globalism has never been more pronounced, and conservatives would do well to recognise that there has never been a better time to promote localist policies in Britain. Whatever the Remainers may say, the ‘Little Englander’ was never a driving force behind Brexit. Localism has always been the preserve of conservatives precisely because it is the preserve of the ordinary person. I am quite certain that the average Briton simply wishes to wake up in a safe neighbourhood each morning, go to work, receive fair pay for his work, and return home to his family without being harassed for his views, faith, or any particular tradition which he follows; in fact, if his neighbours wish to actively join him in cultivating that sort of climate, all the better.

Freedom of Movement harms European nations

Some news outlets have pointed out that net migration from the EU has actually fallen, and that the government’s failure to prevent migration from non-EU countries was the real issue. The objection is that an end to freedom of movement will adversely affect Europeans who were never the problem: the vast majority sharing our values for the most part. There are a number of problems with this critique. Let us use the example of Eastern European, let’s say, Polish migration into the UK in the past twenty years. What is the average person’s experience of the Polish immigrant? They are often known for their diligence, taking on work as the ‘odd-job’ handyman. Economic concerns about Eastern European migrants undercutting British labourers have been voiced, but for the most part, Eastern Europeans are polite, willing to find work where it will be given to them, and, as a happy consequence of the reaction against years of communism in their home nations, often Christian and conservative. Sounds good for us, yes? Not for Poland – a nation which, having been freed from the shackles of communism, presented with an opportunity for growth, saw the younger and skilled members of its workforce jump ship for what they perceived to be more prosperous countries in the West. This, combined with the Schengen area’s free ticket to criminals of all kinds to flee to any country they wished to, also made it difficult for those countries to administer proper constitutional governance to their people in the form of justice, representative democracy, and the like.

The risks of the Migrant Crisis can be avoided by Britain

This leads us onto the next major problem which the debate concerning Brexit and immigration brought to the fore: the Migrant Crisis itself. The European Migrant Crisis has caused the number of first time asylum applications to almost double in the space of only a few years. Some graphs demonstrating the extent of the problem are linked. If the numbers of documented applications appear huge, compare that to the oft-unreported fact that an equally large number of migrants from Africa and the Middle East have not legally applied for asylum in the countries in which they arrived, but rather taken advantage of the EU’s borderless continent to make their way to Germany, France, or as the late Calais ‘Jungle’ demonstrated, Britain. Undocumented migration means there is no way of discerning those genuinely fleeing war from the opportunist criminal, no way of distinguishing the refugee from the economic migrant. What began as an initiative to support Syrians fleeing a terrible conflict soon became a free-for-all for all those hoping to make their way to Europe for what the media likes to call “a better life.” It seems to me to be perfectly morally acceptable for the UK to declare that it has no interest in taking any part in resolving the crisis. The sheer numbers of breaches of law which are taking place allowing migrants to move across Europe freely without documentation, and the unwillingness of the European Union to take a firm position on the issue only serves to discredit it further. If freedom of movement implies that the UK would be obliged to relocate and integrate hundreds of thousands of migrants who cannot be legally processed, or discernibly separated into the genuinely needy and the genuinely exploitative, then it is not a burden we are able to bear. However, what should be a common sense response to an unmanageable crisis has been spun into the Brexit and immigration narrative of Remainers – a battle against xenophobia and racism, when race has nothing to do with the issue. One cannot say that we ought to wash our hands of what has become an Economic Migrant Crisis, because such a suggestion is clearly prejudiced. How to effect genuine change and real justice for migrants from the third world is a story for another time, however.

The link between Brexit and immigration has been a useful one: this was a discussion which our country should have been having years ago. There has been a lot of talk about what sort of system should replace the EU’s freedom of movement once we leave. The ‘Australian-style points system’ was popular talk amongst Leavers at one point, but we have not heard much about it recently. With Theresa May’s transition period counting among several Brexit backtracks, how exactly a new system will be implemented remains unclear. There are plenty of opportunities which Brexit and immigration controls can offer the UK, from simple security, to further attention to our own national issues. So long as we are able to set our own immigration targets, and legislate on the matter for ourselves without being obliged to meet any kind of European standard, there is hope yet for the UK as a sovereign nation. By now, the endless hawking of Remainers concerning Britain as a “nation of immigrants” now affected by an epidemic of “xenophobia” has been debunked enough times. The time has come for conservatives to ignore them, and begin seizing the opportunity to promote their ideas for the future of Britain.