This article was originally published by the Morning Star on the eve of last year’s EU referendum. The issues is raises are still very relevant to the continued debate on immigration.
Immigration has dominated the headlines over the last few weeks. While the right and extreme right have used some particularly incendiary rhetoric in the context of this EU referendum, the left needs to present its own arguments in order to tackle this issue.
It is heavily argued by sectors on the left that the free movement of people within Europe — one of the central tenets of the EU — is a practice that should be protected, and one that enriches our societies. This is not, and should not be, the position of the organised left.
The young, in particular, have been duped into thinking that free movement of people is a near-socialist principle.
Criticism of “free” movement — which in reality is anything but free — has become a no-go area in progressive thought.
The grim economic reality behind this free movement is in essence a free exploitation of a primarily young European workforce with no job security and no prospects.
It is may be hard for us to recognise this grim trend in purely economic terms, away from the sentimentality that accompanies our memories of school trips to grey chateaux and first French kisses on the Continent.
The majority of European migrants in Britain are arrivals out of economic necessity.
By and large they are young (the average age of EU migrants is 34), and in many cases come from countries whose economies have been decimated by EU fiscal policy and are suffering from a “brain drain” as a result of skilled labour leaving the country.
For leftists and progressives in the most debilitated European economies, freedom of movement is not seen as positively as it might be here.
Recently, Alberto Garzon, the iridescent young leader of Spain’s United Left party, which has voted to formally ally itself with Podemos, bemoaned the crisis of young Spanish people flocking to other corners of Europe, saying: “If anyone wishes to leave Spain, let it be through free will, not out of necessity or due to the lack of alternatives.”
This approach should be at the very essence of the debate around EU migration.
It is not a case of whether the small percentage of entrepreneurial, free-spirited young people seeking adventure in their travels around Europe will be affected by Brexit (they most likely won’t be), but whether this mass economic migration really is free.
We must ask ourselves how many young people are being coerced — if not forced — out of their countries partly because of an economic situation largely the making of EU fiscal policy.
Without forgetting that the EU’s growth-sapping economic policy provides a fertile breeding ground for extreme right groups to foster their hatred, especially among European youth.
Alarmingly, in Greece the fascist Golden Dawn party draws the bulk of its support from the 18 to 34-year-old demographic, and 2014 exit poll data showed that 21.2 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted for Golden Dawn, more than any other party except Syriza.
A UCL study showed that low-skilled workers, roughly the bottom 20 per cent of those on the wage scale, are disproportionately affected by EU immigration, while those at the top of the pile benefit from migration.
It is no surprise then that YouGov has found that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to favour Brexit.
Leafleting for the EU referendum on the weekend, many working people — bricklayers, builders, etc — commented on their experiences of EU immigration, pointing out their frustration at having their wages undercut. They were not racist, as many people would have you believe (many in fact were black and ethnic minority), and did not resent the migrants themselves but rather the lack of job opportunities available to them for a decent wage.
Quite simply, those at the bottom of this pile are more likely to have witnessed the basic principle that if a boss can use a cheaper foreign workforce, they will do so.
These rather sophisticated opinions are a far cry from the fascistic overtones of Nigel Farage’s campaign.
But what may be nuanced approaches at the moment can become angry and disjointed if the left chooses to ignore these issues.
If we do not recognise migration and social dumping as issues arising from the inherent contradictions within capitalism, to be combatted through trade unionism, internationalism and solidarity, debates on immigration will quickly become the preserve of the extreme right, even more so than they are already.
Renowned historian Simon Schama, writing in the FT this weekend, commented that Brexit would represent the abandonment of Britain’s humanitarian, “heterogeneous” past.
Britain would not be the same without the Huguenots, Russian Jews or Bengalis who have settled in the country over the centuries. A valid historical point perhaps, but not one that has anything to do with the European Union. Conveniently, Schama ignores that EU migration policy isn’t one of accepting the most needy around the world, but one of driving down wages within EU borders, while doing its level best to keep desperate people out of Europe, even if that means drowning in the Mediterranean.
Would the Russian Jews who migrated at the start of the 20th century have been accepted into “fortress Europe”? Let’s leave the wild historical comparisons to Schama.
In opposition to the Establishment’s liberalism, the left’s position is a nuanced one, away from the arrogance which has marked the recent debate.
Many sadly wish to ignore this fact, preferring snide accusations of xenophobia and racism at every available opportunity.
By being so positive towards EU migration, sectors of the left are naively, or willingly, falling into a trap of their own making — which is not merely xenophobic but actively racist too.
If we are to consider our shameful colonialist past, and form a rational immigration policy starting from that point, there are so many nations and people to whom we owe a great debt.
Many West Indians find it extremely difficult to enter Britain, even to visit families. Why is it then that any EU citizen can come indefinitely to Britain, to visit, study, work or live?
Might we assume it is because they are white, and supposedly share “European values,” unlike our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, Africa or on the Indian subcontinent?
As well as the historical legacy, there is the more recent crisis in the Middle East, largely the making of western European and British intervention in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
EU member states have a debt to accept the people whose very countries we have played a part in destroying.
In fact, the EU is increasingly acting with imperialist clout, officially supporting military campaigns such as the Afghanistan war in 2001, or giving France a waiver on its economic obligations in order to carry out its ill-thought-out attacks in Syria in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
A move towards a new migration policy which accurately reflects the damage Britain has done as a colonialist and imperialist force can only be negotiated outside the EU, with a future progressive government.
Simply put, the case needs to be made for a progressive anti-racist immigration policy that doesn’t merely let white Europeans enter Britain.
Of course, it is easy to argue that, thanks to the right-wing discourse being dictated by the Establishment, a left-wing migration policy is simply not on the agenda.
The argument, however, is that it could be in the future, if we leave the toxic fortress Europe of the European Union.
Crucially, a vote for Brexit does not merely have a bearing on the next five years of government, but potentially the next few decades.