(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Whatever happens with Brexit over the next two months, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s past support for immigration will be put to the test. So far, he appears to be succumbing to short-term political pressure to curb immigration at the expense of policies that would serve Britain’s long-term interests. The result is millions of anxious EU citizens living in the U.K. wondering if they should pack their bags.
Conservative politicians have for years now become unabashedly populist on the issue, unwilling to challenge a popular narrative that sees most immigration as a threat or at least an inconvenience. Former Prime Minister David Cameron began hardening the party’s line on immigration in 2012 as a way to hold off Nigel Farage’s staunchly anti-immigrant UKIP. It proved a slippery slope to a referendum he lost.
As the old left-right dichotomy that define Conservative and Labour voters morphed into something more like an “open” versus “closed” worldview — or the denizens of “somewhere” versus the “anywhere,” as David Goodhart described the new tribalism — Farage found happy hunting on traditional Labour turf by playing on a fear of migrants among working class voters.
Theresa May, a longtime immigration hawk from her days at the Home Office, decided that the lesson of the 2016 Brexit vote was that border control and reduced immigration are paramount policy objectives.
The U.K. media, or elements of it, have played a major role in shaping public attitudes toward immigration. A study by the Migration Observatory just after the Brexit vote found the coverage skewed toward language that would heighten fears: “Mass” was often used as a qualifier before immigration, though the most frequent modifiers were “illegal” and “European.”
Both Cameron and May became hostage to these forces. Johnson too will struggle to resist them, though by instinct and intellectual inclination he is actually a liberal on immigration policy. As London mayor, Johnson often noted that he is the descendant of immigrants (his great grandfather was Turkish), at one point saying: “I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.”
But those liberal instincts on immigration have been shelved in the interest of harvesting votes. During the 2016 Brexit campaign, which Johnson fronted, Vote Leave famously put out a poster that read ominously: “Turkey, population 76 million, is joining the EU. Vote Leave — Take Back Control.” (About the only accurate part of that statement was Turkey’s population size.)
There has been regular, attention-grabbing signalling in the interim too. He was accused of racism after a column he penned for the Daily Telegraph last year described Muslim women who wore the niqab as looking like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes.” In the weeks that followed, there were reports of Muslim women being shouted down on the streets with the same slurs.
In his first days as prime minister, rays of Johnson’s old feelings on the issue seemed to peek through. He sensibly scrapped May’s unrealistic net migration target. He told the 3.2 million EU citizens in Britain they would have “absolute certainty” that their rights would be protected. He called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have had to live in the shadow economy for years.
But the closer the prospect of a new general election, the less inclined Johnson is to defend those views. Johnson now says he favors an “Australia-style points-based” immigration system — something Farage has been pushing for years — but has yet to specify his plan. There is talk of raising the recommended 30,000 pound ($36,000) salary threshold to qualify as sufficiently skilled to merit a visa. It’s not clear if the amnesty plan will survive.
There is also confusion among EU residents after reports that Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to abruptly end the free movement of EU citizens following a no-deal exit. Frustrated EU residents in Britain have taken to Twitter to complain about confusing guidance and processing errors in Britain’s EU Settlement Scheme. The Advertising Standards Authority has slapped down the Home Office’s radio adverts about the scheme as “misleading.”
Britain is in no position to implement the kind of border controls that an abrupt change would require. Even the newly tightened immigration controls that May supported would have major consequences not just for EU nationals but for the sectors in the U.K. economy — health care, hospitality and other services in particular — that rely on them. The think tank IPPR calculated that three-quarters of EU workers in the U.K. would be ineligible under stricter guidelines for low-skilled workers proposed last year by the Migration Advisory Committee.
Facts, however, have long been lost in the debate over immigration because the issue hits so many nerves at once: fear of job losses, fear of crowding on public services, fear of cultural dilution, fear of crime, fear of unaffordable housing. The same narrative has played out to varying degrees, of course, in other Western countries but this island nation was particularly suited to anti-immigrant narratives.
Johnson understands that it is more complex than the fear narrative allows; assimilation of newcomers is critical but that it also depends on Britain’s strained public services, its education system and broader opportunities. And yet Britain needs and has always benefited from migrants; countless studies have concluded that EU migrants contribute more to the public purse than the average British-born adult citizen. They will be essential to building a “global Britain” following Brexit. None of that will come as a surprise to Johnson. The question is whether he will again, as in 2016, turn his back on what he knows to be true.
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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