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Remaining, Belonging, Cooperating – possibilities ahead for Britain and the EU

Professor Brad Blitz spoke at the Annual General Meeting of Salisbury for Europe on 10th May 2017

Thank you very much. It is a privilege to be here today. I have been asked to speak to the prospect of remaining in the European Union and the possibilities ahead.

Let me start by saying I believe that is possible – in large part because the consequences of Brexit are so calamitous for this country; but it will be no easy task. As with most divorces, whatever promises of goodwill and cooperation are offered at the start, relations soon deteriorate when material considerations come into play. For many that is money. In the case of the UK, it is more than money – though the size of the bill facing the UK upon exit is a major issue with reports of payments from £60 to £100 billion. No, the other key challenges, as we know, concern the future of Ireland, the fate of EU nationals in this country, and the toll that withdrawing from the Single Market will have on the economy.

Already we are hearing about businesses relocating with the dashing new President of France seeking to lure business to Paris. That is not altogether obvious. After all, 14 million French votes expressed their preference for party with its roots in Nazism and one known to be anti-immigrant. While elites my take shelter in the belief that the targets of Le Front National are predominantly Muslim or African, nationalists tend to be less discerning and eventually others are also included. So it will not be easy, but we may continue to see more dispersal from the City of London to other centres around the world.

As I argue elsewhere, May’s Brexit is predicated on the belief that seeing the economy shrink is justifiable if in the processes it brings down immigration. That is a big if – as I conclude in this week’s issue of the New European. What are seeing however, with the depressed pound, is a reset where the UK economy is reliant on exports – good for manufacturing, automobiles and defence – but for the vast majority of people, imports are actually what life is about. It’s about their needs and wishes, not others in countries further afield. That irony has been lost on Brexiteers – they are increasingly catering to others, not those present in the UK who are already having to pay more in the shops. The National Institute for Social and Economic Research predicts inflation will rise to 3.4% this year.

But we are already seeing the signs of Brexit.

The number of hate crimes recorded by regional police forces rose by up to 100 per cent in the months immediate following the Referendum. And it is pronounced here in the South West. While Dorset saw the greatest increase, with the 104 offences between July and September 2016 double the total from April to June. Out of 44 counties, the South West was well above the average for England and Wales at 27% with two counties in the top half – Wiltshire in 14th  position up 38% and Hampshire in 17th up 33%.

In terms of the nature of crimes, the police consider the following types of racially or religiously aggravated offences as hate crimes: assault with injury; assault without injury; harassment; public fear, alarm or distress; and other criminal damage.

Some groups like Civitas – an organisation which relies on the work of critics hostile to multiculturalism, although its staff are presented as being associated with Labour projects – claim that crimes reported were almost exclusively non-violent or were acts of vandalism. Civitas also says somewhat dismissively, that the police definition of a hate crime is one that is perceived by the victim to have been based on prejudice. In a briefing paper it argues “this means that in the strictest sense the surge in reported incidents only represents a surge in perceived prejudice”. But isn’t this important? Doesn’t this tell us about the state of the country, the fact that such harassment is a feature of daily life?

You only need to speak to migrants on the other end or even non-migrants – members of minority groups. The Community Security Trust reports that every month from May to December saw a monthly incident total above 100 antisemitic incidents – the annual reported was 1,309.

Moreover, if this were Northern Ireland we’d be concerned. We would greet last year’s reports of five attacks and one arson event against the City Cemetery in Derry/Londonderry with great alarm and note the effects of spill-over. The vandalism of a Jewish cemetery was viewed as much an iteration of loyalist/unionist strife as it was an act of anti-Semitism. Why be complacent in the face of evident hate?

This takes me to my next point – the refashioning of our ideas of rights and entitlements and how they apply to all present.

There are two main schools of thought – and much in between – on obligations towards non-citizens. There is a universalist, rights based approach which centres on the individual and considers what is needed for protection and self-actualisation; and in this, some rights are seen as gateway – or foundational rights and argue that actually freedom of movement is one of those. Then there is a competing school of thought which starts from bounded ideas of membership to consider sovereignty, political community and is in effect communitarian and seeks to draw lines around entitlements.

These two schools of thought are increasingly in conflict. One the one hand we have European and international law which affords rights to those present on the territory – irrespective of their status as citizens. Then we have an increasingly vocal group arguing in nationalist terms about the rights of membership and the need to shore it up. One of the most prominent writers is David Goodhart who frequently justifies his comments in terms of preserving social democracy.

Elsewhere I have written about his ideas and have reviewed his latest book. I won’t do so here. All I will say is that it is replete with statistical and factual inaccuracies.

But what we are witnessing is an attempt to divide up our communities. This is in large part the war on immigration. As we have heard, the Prime Minister intends now to include in the Tory Party manifesto a promise to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. By any stretch of the imagination, this target is unrealistic and we should remember that during her seven years at the Home Office, Mrs May never met her target. Rather, Home Office decisions were repeatedly overturned by the courts. I address some of the consequences of her failures in Friday’s New European, but what I think is most important is to consider how these policies are driving forward a bullying campaign which seeks to divide us. The only way the government can progress towards reducing immigration is through a combination of bullying to deter entry and further unlawful practices aimed at removing those already present, including those working on the frontline of the NHS.

We recall how Irene Clennell, the grandmother married to a UK national for almost 30 years, lost indefinite leave to remain after spending time in Singapore caring for parents and was separated from her husband and put on a plane.Â

Some of you may also have read about Harley Miller, the Australian therapist previously married to an EU national, who saw her visa renewal rejected and took the Home Office to court. She has written so eloquently about her situation and described how the Home Office decision saw her sacked from a job she loved – working with mentally ill children.

Although she successfully won the right to stay temporarily in the UK, she did not win as much as she lost. Her indefinite leave to remain was not restored but instead she was given a 30 month visa. When that was due to expire, she took the decision to reject the UK, as it had rejected her and so many others. Writing about how she saw xenophobia drift into conversations – something unheard of in professional and middle class circles, she claimed the Britain she loved was gone and so was she – back to an admittedly imperfect, and also anti-immigrant country, Australia, but one where she personally no longer needed to battle.

This talk that this is all to protect social democracy – especially given the interwoven, international and inter-personal fabric that is contemporary UK society – is nonsense. It assumes we are living in a white country when the reality is very different. Go into any school or university and you will find children born to parents of different nationalities, whose parents in fact have different statuses within the national framework, but are equal in the eyes of EU law. And these are the families at risk. These are the families of my colleagues who question: can they stay, what do they need to do to stay? They are alarmed at the growing rate of refusals. The two examples I gave above are non-EU nationals, ironically from the English speaking Commonwealth — countries that the government, the right-wing and UKIP say we should prioritise. But the stories of EU nationals are equally tragic with families being threatened with separation as the government is rejecting applicants for residency in record numbers. In 2016 approximately 28 per cent of applications were turned down. The reasons behind this statistic include a high volume of inadmissible applications — not surprising since the form runs on for 85 pages — as well more sinister claims.

We know that migrants who become economically inactive or have a break in their employment and are without health insurance are liable to be removed. There are many further conditions buried in Home Office rules which can be mobilized to remove people.  The Guardian has published accounts of EU nationals married to British spouses who have been denied residency and have been issued with letters instructing them to prepare to leave the UK on account of their salary levels. When scruitinised these letters are unlawful under EU law, but the burden is placed on individuals.

In response to the above scandal, the government has claimed that the letters are the result of ‘administrative errors’, just as it has with the Dubs scheme which they tried to cap at 350 unaccompanied child migrants. Now, there is apparently more room in the country. We might accept these excuses at face value – the Home Office is a grossly incompetent agency, but in my view it runs deeper. The emerging picture is that the Prime Minister and her Home Office are now engaged in an energetic war against migrants. They want people to leave the country so they can claim victory over immigration and assert that they have restored control over the UK’s borders. Theresa May is playing the role of the British bully. If only this were Hollywood!

But this is not make believe. Families face being divided up because the government will not guarantee their rights.

So how can we stop the drift towards madness.Â

Some like Goodhart argue that the way is by accommodation and appeasement. There needs to be some accommodation with the Brexiteers and UKIPers. Claire Fox and others have suggested that the problem is elites are too judgmental of others – that we, people like us, think those who voted to leave are stupid.

Let me make it clear that is not the case. People were uniformed, deceived, and distracted. Some may have had principled reasons, for example those who are overtly critical of the EU on the grounds that it has brought in a raft of provisions which have impacted traditional and local sectors. Even if I disagree with them – above all with the alternatives they believe are available – I recognise that such arguments are not coming from a place of antipathy.

In spite of the talk of re-set and the populist ‘wave’ – or rather ‘moment’ as we see in France – there are few alternatives to the liberal economic order created over the past seventy years, and above all the one that has accelerated over the past thirty years. There are few ways of disentangling us from Europe or the global economy without inflicting much self-harm. And as we see with a resurgent Russia and Turkey, there are also few ways of restructuring our political commitments towards Europe without deepening cracks in the geopolitical order and undermining our values – above all the protection of human rights. Neither Turkey nor Russia are presented as liberal democracies but rather places where growing authoritarianism is being turned on journalists, academics and others – and is encouraging other countries too such as Hungary and the USA.  So we really need the European Union, Council of Europe and the liberal institutions on our doorstep.  Â

So we need to assert our values and continue to explain why the nationalist turn is so damaging. We need to do so with facts and evidence and in the knowledge that there are individuals and organisations like Breitbart which will pervert these truths. The only way to attack such arguments is to show that they are flawed and to illustrate where they are coming from – in many cases from Neo-Nazis and truly unstable voices. In this instance – and in spite of the challenges which we as educators see i.e the lack of political awareness, the demise of newspapers, the cherry picking from news sources on social media – actually I suggest British conservatism with a small c is an advantage. Nigel Farage gets far as the man with a pint in his hand – but the racists, thugs and truly deranged individuals who are constantly at each others throats present a very different picture of UKIP. So we need to continue to expose them for what they are and to respond to letters and articles.

Then there are smart legal challenges – strategic litigation in the form initiated by Gina Miller and Jo Maughan. These test the strength of our constitution and democratic institutions. We can support them – financially.

We also need to link up evidence and campaigning much better. We know that the pro-Brexit forces seeking to destabilise Europe used extensive analysis of social media to inform political messaging. Groups like Cambridge Analytica analysed tweets and social media sites so closely to understand where pressure points existed, then to use that information to direct campaigns. We need to do likewise, recognising that most people are concerned about issues closest to home. I suggest the costs of Brexit and inflation are two possible areas for further investigation.

Then, equally, we need to cooperate across parties with all who want to avoid a hard Brexit. Even if we cannot prevent Brexit – and I think the clock is working against the PM – we can work to find ways to effectively stay in the Single Market. In so doing we would also be challenging the logic that Brexit is the will of the country.

I haven’t said anything about political leadership – the acute need for it in this country. The general election poses some very hard choices and few good options. Strategic voting may be a useful ploy but in the longer term we need to get more sensible people on the front benches. That may be a call not just to political mobilisation but for us as individuals to be prepared to put ourselves on the line.

There are many options ahead but certainly organising is among the first priority – as you have done here. The game is not over.

Thank you for your attention.