There is a depressing amount of wishful thinking going on in the UK right now: for a recent example see here. When Iceland’s banking system collapsed, that was a real emergency requiring capital controls: the sort of eventuality envisaged by the now-famous Article 112 of the Agreement on the European Economic Area. It isn’t at all clear to me that the rest of the EEA will view the argument that “there are too many of your lot in our country, so let us keep them out” in the same light. There is also a big difference between triggering an emergency clause in a contract, when an emergency arises which was unexpected when the agreement was signed, and saying from day one that you want to opt out of a key part of an agreement. And the have-your-cake-and-eat-it brigade also fail to mention that, in addition to Article 112, there is Article 114, which states that
If a safeguard measure taken by a Contracting Party creates an imbalance between the rights and obligations under this Agreement, any other Contracting Party may towards that Contracting Party take such proportionate rebalancing measures as are strictly necessary to remedy the imbalance. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of the EEA.
It seems to me that England cannot afford wishful thinking right now, and that those who wish her well need to be crystal clear about the choice it faces, so that there is no mis-understanding on the English side.
I recently published an article on the subject, aimed above all at former Remainers, here. That was a heavily-edited-for-newspapers version of something I originally wrote for this site. Since I use this blog in part as a reminder to myself of what I have written, I reproduce the original blog post below the fold, links and all.
An astonishing dereliction of responsibility
One of the most depressing features of the post-referendum political landscape in Britain is the way in which former Remainers have gone AWOL. Worse still, many seem to have accepted the fundamental premise of the anti-EU campaign, namely that there are too many Europeans in Britain. (Whether you believe this to be true on economic or social grounds, or simply as a matter of political fact, is irrelevant really, since the practical implications are the same.) And so you see a variety of commentators now engaging in hopelessly wishful thinking: perhaps the UK will only lose a little market access if it imposes immigration restrictions on the EU; perhaps the EU will itself abandon free mobility in an attempt to keep the UK in; perhaps a special deal will be made to protect the British university sector; perhaps the UK will be given the same treatment as Liechtenstein, a town with a population of less than 40,000; and so on.
If even former Remainers accept that Britain needs to keep fellow Europeans out, then the reality is that Britain – or, at least, England and Wales – is headed for “hard” Brexit, not just out of the EU but out of the Single Market. And while I don’t believe that England and Wales will collapse as a result, this is going to have all sorts of costs, some quite personal, and some quite painful, for many people and institutions in those countries.
Below is a chart showing numbers of EU immigrants (defined as people born in another EU state) in each EU member state, as a share of the local population (source, Table 4). As you can see, the UK is indeed at the upper end of the distribution, but it is by no means the country with the greatest number of EU immigrants per capita. Indeed, the figure is twice as high in Ireland.
The Irish comparison is, I believe, a revealing one. We also have a housing shortage, and indeed housing has been scarce in Dublin for a long time. Our public services are lousy – much worse than in Britain, with its NHS. While we are clearly not British, we are surely closer to them culturally than other Europeans. And, as we saw in the 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, there is a potential anti-immigrant vote in the poorer parts of Dublin, among precisely the same sorts of people who are anti-immigrant and anti-globalization elsewhere.
So why have we not developed a toxic anti-European-immigrant political discourse, as they have done in Britain? The question seems especially relevant since Ireland was treated shamefully by European institutions at the time of the banking crisis.
Part of the answer is surely the media. We have nothing like the jingoistic and mendacious gutter press that they have across the water. And part of the answer is surely political leadership. Nothing would have been easier than for Sinn Féin, Ireland’s nationalist protest party, to do a UKIP and adopt a anti-immigrant position; and yet they chose not to. Those of us who remember the Troubles and were not on Sinn Féin’s side may find it difficult to credit them with anything, but on this issue they deserve enormous praise.
Economics obviously drives a lot of anti-globalization sentiment, and anti-immigrant sentiment specifically. I have spent a good deal of my career making that point in various ways. But other things matter too (which is why God invented multivariate regressions!). And the truth is that the reason that many English people seem to be so obsessed with the presence of their fellow Europeans has a lot to do with some of the very worst aspects of English society.
There is another way.
In particular, if the root problem is a lack of services per capita, one obvious solution is to focus on the numerator, as well as the denominator. But tackling xenophobia and making the positive case for Europe – free mobility and all – has also got to be part of the solution. Which is why the way in which former Remainers have been retreating into their shells is so disheartening. The English voted to leave the EU, but we don’t know how they would vote if they were asked to choose between the two options now available to their country: membership of the EEA, and an exit from the Single Market to be followed by a series of trade agreements.
There is still a huge amount to play for. To refuse to make the case for EEA membership, free mobility and all, when you had previously been in favour of remaining in the EU, strikes me as an astonishing dereliction of responsibility.