Saturday, July 07, 2012

On the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Commonwealth, and migration issues

News that the British government is considering ways to keep Greek citizens from entering the United Kingdom if it seems they might enter the country in large numbers has gotten a strong reaction.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is prepared to override Britain's historic obligations under European Union treaties and impose stringent border controls that would block Greek citizens from entering Britain, if Greece is forced out of the single currency.

The Prime Minister told MPs that ministers have examined legal powers that would allow Britain to deprive Greek citizens of their right to free movement across the EU, if the eurozone crisis leads to ''stresses and strains''.

In an appearance before senior MPs on the cross-party House of Commons liaison committee, Mr Cameron confirmed that ministers have drawn up contingency plans for ''all sorts of different eventualities''.

The worst-case scenario is understood to cover a Greek exit from the euro, which could trigger a near-collapse of the Greek economy and the flight of hundreds of thousands of its citizens who are entitled to settle in any EU country.

[. . .]

Asked by Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, whether he would restrict the rights of Greek citizens to travel to Britain, Mr Cameron said he would be prepared to trigger such powers.

[. . .]

''You have to plan, you have to have contingencies, you have to be ready for anything - there is so much uncertainty in our world. But I hope those things don't become necessary.''


Leaving aside the expectedly heated reaction from Greece that caught my attention, but the reaction of non-British, non-Greek Europeans who I saw react to the article on Facebook. A United Kingdom that chose to opt out of the single market's freedom of movement for workers even on a temporary basis, after staying out of the Eurozone and Schengen Zone blocs from their foundations and acquiring a reputation (fairly or not) for being hostile to European Union integration on principle, might not find itself very popular elsewhere in the European Union. Perhaps--who knows?--if the United Kingdom ever did hold a referendum on continued EU membership, Europeans might welcome British departure? Famously anti-immigration groups like Migration Watch don't emphasize immigration from elsewhere in the European Union as much of an issue, noting that migrants form elsewhere in the European Union form perhaps three-tenths of the total number of immigrants to the United Kingdom at present and assuming that the volume of this migration and number of permanent migrant wills fall as central and southeastern Europe develop. As the Conservative government finds its restrictive net migration target difficult to achieve, even the Labour Party's Ed Milliband starting to agree with the current British government's migration policies, the idea of limiting migration from other European Union countries--perhaps temporarily, at first--might become popular.

What interests me about the dislike of many Britons with the volume of migration from elsewhere in the European Union (not to other EU member-states, mind), is that it's strongly associated with opposition to the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union. The United Kingdom, a certain vein of argument holds (see Nile Gardiner in The Telegraph, for instance), was tricked into joining an anti-democratic European bloc that had goals of supranational integration that Britons never wanted. Britain can withdraw from the European Union comfortably, knowing that the continent is in decline anyway as the BRICS and the rest grow, and instead turn to the Commonwealth of Nations that it unnecessarily reoriented itself from in the 1970s, with its use of the English language and shared history under Britain and promising economies (developed like Canada's or Australia's, developing like India's or South Africa's), and thrive in a revived Commonwealth.

There are many problems with this project. (Speaking as a citizen of a Commonwealth country, the basic assumption of these people that Britain's former colonies are going to be interested in restoring the privileged relationships of the past when they're now mature countries with relationships of their own, thank you very much, is a huge one.) The demographic-related problem with this? Migration Information's July 2009 country profile of the United Kingdom noted accurately that the two countervailing trends in post-Second World War immigration to the United Kingdom has been the lowering of barriers to migration from the European Union and barriers' simultaneous raising to the countries of the Commonwealth. Britain passed multiple laws in the post-war period progressively making it more difficult for citizens of other Commonwealth countries to settle in the United Kingdom, most famously in the 1980s and 1990s constructing a citizenship for British Hong Kong that made it impossible for British citizens in the last major colony to immigrate to the United Kingdom at a time when countries around the world were competing for the wealthy, skilled migrants from Hong Kong who wanted to leave before reunificatiion with China in 1997. The restrictions on migrants from the Commonwealth, as far as I can tell, have very little to do with the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union and everything to do with opposition to immigration generally. If New Zealand's agricultural exports no longer had privileged access to British markets after 1973, it didn't follow that New Zealand's citizens likewise had to be excluded from privileged access to the territory and labour markets of the former metropole. The nationality law of Spain even now gives residents of Spain's former Latin American and Asian colonies access to expedited naturalization, no matter that many of these countries have been fully independent for nearly two centuries.

(I myself lack the right of abode in the United Kingdom, having been a Canadian citizen on 31 December 1982 but whose last British born relatives died this time last century at the very latest.)

All this brings me to Ruth Grove-White's essay on the connections between British immigration policies and British relationships with the Commonwealth, originally posted at Migrants Rights and reposted at Open Democracy.

The direction of UK policy indicates that efforts to slash net migration will have significant impacts on Commonwealth migrants - and potentially wider implications for inter-governmental relationships. The coalition government’s cap on non-EU migrant workers, for example, caused immediate and embarrassing ripples for relations with key Commonwealth governments when it was announced in 2010. New restrictions on international students including closure of the post-study work route from this April, given that two thirds of new Commonwealth citizens coming to the UK currently come for study, can be expected to affect these nationals in particular.

And upcoming rule changes on family migration, in particular a new income threshold for applicants which could prevent up to half of the UK’s working population from bringing a family member here, would particularly impact on nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal who are the big users of the family migration route currently. These rule changes may satisfy the immediate government policy agenda, but they are viewed as unfair among many from diaspora communities based here.

As these developments take shape over the coming period, we can and should expect immigration to play a more central role in discussion about the Commonwealth and Britain today - what will the implications of today's policies be on future communities and their perceptions of national identity and British institutions? It would be worth considering whether, rather than connecting cultures, the UK is instead creating new barriers - and new challenges - into the future.


Will Commonwealth countries whose citizens are kept from working and living in the United Kingdom on a scale unprecedented even now going to be open to developing otherwise close relations with the United Kingdom if it leaves the European Union? I have grave doubts. Opponents of British membership in the European Union should keep this in mind when they draw up optimistic plans for a non-EU Britain's future.

5 comments:

Peter said...

Britain's catastrophically unpleasant experience with Pakistani immigrants might be making the country wary about an influx of Greek immigrants. An unwarranted overreaction, as the Greeks surely aren't going to be as remarkably unsuccessful as the Pakistanis.

Kreig Zimmerman said...

I think your viewpoint is unnecessarily skewed. It's not that the UK seeks a closer relationship with the Commonwealth — it is seeking a way to foment a closer relationship with the USA.

Anyone can see that the political and economic climate shows a total cross-fertilization. An UK shod of the EU could easily commence a new trade agreement with the United States.

sara said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Randy said...

Peter:

Pakistanis might be the latest unpopular group, but a casual look from my non-British perspective suggests that Commonwealth immigrants almost regardless of their origins or the reasons for their migration have gone through periods of unpopularity. Descendants of British migrants are the only class of migrants I can think of.

Kreig:

Yes the idea of a closer alliance with the United States may be appealing (but will the United States go for such?), but the point is that the political factions that are loudest about wanting Britain out of the European Union are also quite loud about their specific desire to make Britain the core of a revived Commonwealth. For this to work, though, among many many other things, the hostile British attitude towards Commonwealth migrants would have to change completely.

Anonymous said...

Kreig:

From what I have discovered of the British and their intentions with potential of a commonwealth union, I don't think their main goal is to become closer to the USA, though I'm sure some would like trading deals. Like the author of this blog has noted, many British political parties who oppose the E.U advocate a commonwealth union very strongly.
The reason this is so is fairly simple, the commonwealth is an already established organization with voluntary members who support equality, democracy and all that. No one really benefits from this financially as of now, but the proposal of free trade and such can be very appealing. Especially with Canada, Australia or New Zealand, who would most likely be the members involved if this ever came to pass.
Now to be honest I don't think this would be a bad deal, or that the major players in the commonwealth would be opposed to this. Many don't like the commonwealth much, sure, but it's not like it would only be helpful to the British. Upon research I have found that if Canada, New Zealand, the UK and Australia were to form a C.U they would form the fourth largest GDP in the world among other advantages. Plus it's a sort of nostalgia kick that the U.S just couldn't give