Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Brexit and the politics of paradox

19 July 20160 comments

They say that politics and paradox go hand in hand.

Britain’s ‘Brexit’ vote to leave the EU is a case in point and the fallout, which has already transformed both British and European politics, has more paradoxes than a hall of mirrors.

Campaigners to get Britain out of Europe won their shock victory by galvanising older and less-educated voters angry about the way globalisation is changing their lives.

The ‘Leave’ proponents targeted people concerned about immigration, warning them that millions of foreigners were on their way to Britain.

Brexit Boris

Boris Johnson

Now they’re telling these people they won’t get what they want after all. On the morning after the vote Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s poster boy, was already backing away from this message.

“I want to speak directly to the millions of people who did not vote for this outcome, especially young people, who may feel that this decision in some way involves pulling up a drawbridge,” Johnson said.

“I think the very opposite is true. We can control our own borders in a way that is not discriminatory but fair and balanced, and take the wind out of the sails of the extremists and those who would play politics with immigration.”

So what happened with Brexit was that an unholy alliance of socialists and conservatives rejected the reality of ever-greater globalisation and multiculturalism in favour of more self-government and the protection of settled ways of life.

Many of the Brexiteers want a liberal, free market, low-regulation economy modelled on the City of London – of which Johnson was mayor for eight years.

But the 17 million people whose votes they relied on want dramatically reduced immigration and more regulation even it comes with negative economic consequences.

A further paradox can be seen in the fact Brexit could well result in a higher proportion of foreigners entering the UK.

This depends on the exit deal the UK strikes with the EU. As is the case with Norway and Switzerland, it could be that the UK will – or will be forced to – keep laws allowing the free movement of labour in exchange for access to EU markets.

There is a lot of evidence to show that economic growth and migration are inextricably linked. UK migration trends could be affected by factors other than policy. If the UK goes into recession, migration will fall – and rise if there is a boom.

Brexit could also see an exodus of Britons making inward migration an economic imperative.

Some 2.5 million Britons have already signed a petition for a second referendum and young people, a significant majority among those who voted to stay, feel betrayed.

Their likely destinations will be Australia, Canada and New Zealand, given the uncertainty about their future status in the EU.

Britons working overseas are now less likely to return home – they too voted overwhelmingly to stay. If they don’t go home the proportion of foreigners entering Britain will increase.

This suggests the Leave campaign will be very unlikely to deliver on its core promises of more economic growth and less migration.

And herein lies the irony of Brexit – a paradoxical blending of conservative with socialist ideas.

The winners of the referendum will be the losers in the economic fallout. Brexit may well exacerbate the negative economic impact on the working class who feel squeezed by globalisation.

The referendum result is a popular rejection of financial capitalism and mass immigration, but it also serves to undermine the very institution that can help mitigate the rampant and capricious power of capital markets.

Political scientist Adrian Pabst says that leaving the single market “will embolden the libertarians who want to abolish workers’ rights, destroy what is left of the old system of guild-protected professions and embark on a global race to the bottom from which only big government and big business benefit”.

Perhaps the ultimate potential consequence of is that it threatens to unravel the European experiment itself.

“The real and present fear of contagion is evinced by growing clamour for similar exit referenda in Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Hungary as well as founding members such as the Netherlands, France and Italy,” says Pabst.



Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist