Tag Archive: Asylum

The refugee backlash – pulling-up the European drawbridge

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

2015 was another tumultuous year for Europe. Over a million refugees found their way into the European Union (EU), but already a new dynamic is evident in early 2016: the refugee backlash has begun and Europe is pulling-up the drawbridge on refugees and economic migrants. The broad contours of the dynamic evident can be summarised as follows:

  • The EU countries have accepted too many and cannot continue to absorb refugees at the same rate;
  • Germany was irresponsible in allowing so many refugees;
  • Without proper checks, the refugee will include a radical element that will pose a threat to the EU´s security, as illustrated by the terrifying Paris bombings in November 2015;
  • Once in Germany, or wherever, they will spread to other parts of the EU, so the freedom of movement of people principle may need to be looked at again;
  • Further sexual assaults on women and robberies by young men from “the African or North African region” are to be expected following the shameful New Year’s Eve experiences in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities;
  • The current levels of migration will destroy Europe as we know it; the borders must close, only legitimate applications up to a predetermined cap can be accepted and the rest sent back.

This all seems logical and it plays well as a populist theme. This certainly applies to parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), but it also goes down equally well with the mainstream political parties such as the Conservative Party in the UK and the CDU and especially CSU in Germany. This is without even mentioning the more radical right wing movements that exist throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, shrill criticism of the migration issue and the EU’s apparent inability to manage the situation is particularly evident in the UK, as it gears up for the forthcoming referendum (the exact date of which has not yet been announced) on whether to remain in the EU or not.

It is very difficult to unpack and analyse what is clearly a highly emotive theme, let alone have a sensible debate about it, which is the very reason why certain political parties are making hay with the refugee issue. Previously, their favourite theme was the Eurozone/Greece crisis, now it is migration but the overall gloom and doom narrative does not change very much.

I should stress that there are clearly legitimate public concerns throughout Europe about the migration issue, both within the EU and from outside. However, the use of scare tactics to gain political or other advantage is not something I enjoy witnessing so I aim to address a sub-set of issues, such as Germany’s alleged irresponsible behaviour, the argument that Europe simply cannot cope and the refugee backlash that is in full swing before the first month of 2016 is finished.

The blame game

I will start with Germany’s role in the European refugee crisis. There is certainly a messy situation, but did Germany act irresponsibly in 2015?

Any way you choose to cut it, Germany has played the key role in the refugee crisis. Germany accepted 1.1 million refugees in 2015, a number than could rise further on by the time the counting is official. Germany had in any case been experiencing significant flows of migrants, mainly from the EU. For the last few years this has been running at over 400,000 net migrants per year. Add this up and Germany received at least 1.5 million net migrants last year, which is an astonishing figure. Furthermore, under the German asylum law, refugees may be allowed to bring their family members, resulting in a significant and unquantifiable flow connected with 2015.

By any reasonable criteria Germany has been an incredibly good country to accept so many people. This is not just about the cost involved, which is undoubtedly significant albeit one which Germany is in a position to absorb. Being a good country is first and foremost about the willingness to recognise the human suffering cause by the migration crisis and to try to do something about it, rather than turning a blind eye to it all.

The contrast with many other EU countries could not be greater. Countries such as the UK have agreed to accept 5,000 Syrian refugees per year for the next five years. It has to be borne in mind that even this paltry number was only agreed to following a public outcry from British citizens appalled by their government’s hard heartedness, which bounced Parliament into agreeing to do more.

Germany is not alone in being a good country: about 90% of the refugees have been accepted by three countries out of 28 in the EU: Germany, Sweden and Austria. What about the response of the other 25 countries of the EU?  Following months of unedifying political squabbling, which continues to this day, the best they could come-up with was to agree to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy over the next two years: this is an average of 5,700 per country over two years, though very few of these transfers have actually occurred so far (less than 500 were achieved in 2015 and only 3 out of 10 “hot spots” have opened according to some estimates).

Is “pitiful” too strong a word to summarise the EU’s collective failure in the face of a mass humanitarian crisis? I don’t think so. It is not the first time that the EU has failed miserably to stand up to be counted and it will almost certainly not be the last. It is not as if the refugee crisis was some sudden, unexpected act of god; this is the result of steadily growing pressure and reaching its natural and inevitable conclusion. There was nothing about it that could not have been predicted by the civil servants of the European Commission or of the EU member states.

Germany’s decision to act more or less unilaterally in accepting 1.1 million refugees must be seen in the following context:

  1. This is the worst crisis since WW2: the number of forcibly displaced people, often due to wars, reached almost 60 million worldwide at the end of 2014, including over 14 million refugees. This was an increase of about 25% compared to the previous year and is mostly due civil war, violence and oppression in Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, etc. although other regions, including northern Africa and the Balkans, are also major sources of migrants (IMF, 2016 / The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges). This is nothing short of a mass human tragedy, which Europe is neither immune to nor can afford to simply turn its back on. Globalisation entails many new developments, including the capacity of large numbers of people to move in the direction of Europe. It may take time, but sooner or later, it does reach Europe.
  2. This was not a crisis of Germany’s making: it did not chose to invade Iraq in 2003 and played little or no part in setting in chain a series of events which have destabilised parts of the Middle East, in an attempt to bring about democracy through regime change. Of all the European nations it is the UK, France and Italy (together with the USA) that bear the greatest responsibility for any resulting instability in the region. All are now conspicuous for their efforts to obfuscate causality and deny moral or other responsibility (if you break something, you should fix it) to deal with the resulting mess that they helped to set in chain.
  3. The EU failed spectacularly: the utter inability of the EU to find common ground in dealing with the huge volume of people heading towards Europe is what resulted in Germany’s more or less unilateral action. Just as in the Greek/Eurozone crises, it is proving extremely difficult for 28 countries to make decisions quickly and act in unison. This should not be in the least bit surprising. The EU is very far from being a United States of Europe; this simply reflects the fact that the nation-state is alive and well within the EU, despite exaggerated claims of its demise. Each nation retains the ability to follow its own mandate and block changes that it does not agree with. The Central European (Visegrad countries) and Western Balkans states have made their views crystal clear in respect to taking a share of the refugees, but they are not alone. Just as in the case of Greece and the Eurozone, finding a common solution to an unexpected large-scale problem is a slow, messy and costly process. In the end, to misquote slightly the famous words: Europeans Will Always Do the Right Thing — After Exhausting All the Alternatives. The 28 nation states plus the various Candidate Countries (i.e. Western Balkans including Turkey) will find an imperfect compromise and Germany will pay a disproportionate amount of the cost arising. Such is the iron rule of the EU. No other scenario is possible if 28+ nations are to continue to play broadly for the same team. How many other international agreements are you aware of that take a couple of weeks or months to resolve? Climate change agreements? International trade agreements? These things take years or decades, not weeks or months to sort out and are always and everywhere an uneasy compromise. 28+ countries finding a way to deal with the worst humanitarian crisis in 70 years takes time but in 2015, time was of the essence where people are involved, rather than just economics.

Cometh the hour, cometh the country: Germany chose not to sit on its hands but to act in alleviating the growing pressure along the Turkish-Greek-Balkan-Central European corridor.

Refugees in Miratovac, close to the border between Serbia and Macedonia. Photo by Djordje Savic / EPA

Refugees in Miratovac, close to the border between Serbia and Macedonia. Photo by Djordje Savic / EPA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are free to form your own opinion about whether Germany has acted irresponsibly or not. I personally think that not only has Germany acted incredibly responsibly, but as tax payer and resident of the country, I am proud of living in such a country. No doubt, Germany has already changed as a result and ordinary Germans are deeply unsettled about the implications, an issue which I plan to write about in the future. This is a reflection, among other issues of the fact that the scale of the problem is so great that no country can possibly solve it all on its own – not even Germany.

Europe Cannot Cope! Really?

The next issue is whether Germany and/or Europe have relevant experience and if they can absorb the numbers of refugees.

For a start, I can distinctly remember (since I was part of it) a small, poor, broken European country of 8.5 million absorbing about 1 million people from its former colonies during the mid- to late-1970s. While there are major differences with the current situation (common language, culture, religion, etc.), Portugal was not part of the EU but absorbed those numbers and did not collapse despite its politically chaotic and economically precarious post-colonial situation at the time. In fact, it thrived as a result of the influx. Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that Europe should fling open its doors to all and sundry with no questions asked, but I am saying that Europe is much more robust than many would seem to believe.

After a short-lived spike of international approval for its decision to take on the refugees, Germany has since reaped criticism, direct and indirect, most of which has been leveled at Angela Merkel, the Germany Chancellor. The gist of the argument is that she has gambled Germany’s long term interests for personal hubris: she wanted to cap her career with a Nobel Peace Prize and/or improve Germany’s international image after the Greek crisis. Others of a more analytical bent sought instead to justify Germany’s actions (and presumably the inaction of their own governments) by pointing to Germany’s ageing population structure. It seems to me that almost all 28 EU countries are suffering from the same problem, albeit to varying degrees. Did others facing the same demographic situation jump to take their share of refugees? I don’t think so.

It is certainly true that Germany and many EU countries have a rapidly ageing population structure (fertility of around 1.5, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1) that would greatly benefit from significant immigration of the scale that happened during 2015. But I take issue with the implication that the German authorities naively failed to foresee the likely stresses and strains that would be generated by taking so many refugees in one year (the estimate at the time was 800,000 – 1 million refugees). The reality is that Europe generally and Germany specifically have plenty of experience of large scale refugee crises and indeed of Muslims culture.

Firstly, Germany has a large number of Muslims. According to the 2011 Population Census, there are just under 6.2 million foreigners in Germany and Turks alone accounted for the largest group (1.5 million people or 24.4%). In all, some 2.5 million people are of Turkish origin. It is not as though Germany is not aware of the stresses and strains associated with the religion, gender, education, labour market and other dimensions connected with integrating populations, including Muslims. The same applies to many countries of the EU but unlike others, it still went ahead with what is often described by its critics as its “open door” policy.

Secondly, it was not so long ago that Germany had to respond to a refugee crisis of similar proportion. During the 1990s, a large number of asylum applications were lodged due to crisis in the ex-Yugoslavia, though the peak of that crisis in 1991 (around 700,000) has been exceeded in 2015 (see first Figure below). That said the second Figure below illustrates the point that the numbers were relatively low compared to those of the 1990s, though the diagram does not take the 2015 influx of over a million refugees into consideration. It is probably not a coincidence that then, as now, Germany absorbed the lion’s share of refugees.


IMF graphic 2016

Source: IMF, 2016, p.11

Thirdly, to put things in context, Europe had only absorbed 1 out of the 14 million refuges worldwide in 2014 and this increased to 2 million in 2015. Whoever believes that what has happened in 2015 is the end of the matter and that the EU can simply put-up the fences, close the borders and turn its back on the rest of the world is deluded. A proportion of the 12 million other displaced people are heading our way in 2016 and beyond: the current estimate is that another 1 million will aim for the EU this year and possibly more. The way to end this catastrophe is not by pulling-up the drawbridge to Fortress Europe; if the conflicts in the countries in question are ended and if this is combined with a major reconstruction programme, in time, the human tragedy and the migratory process will also abate. Putting-up fences and closing borders will restrict some of the flow, but will also add to the human desperation without actually dealing with the root cause.

To conclude, in my view Germany did not saunter into the current situation blithely and Mrs Merkel was right in saying “Wir schaffen das.” We can do it: I agree with her. Other, much smaller and poorer countries have in the part or are currently absorbing the same or higher numbers of refugees. Germany knew, more or less, the implications of opening its borders to about a million refugees, even if the general public could not have predicted the exact consequences, including the outrages in Cologne and other cities. It is most unlikely that Europe’s pre-eminent politician would not have sniffed the potential political, social, religious and cultural implications of undertaking such a radical step. The numbers absorbed by Europe are relatively small by comparison with the numbers being absorbed by other countries, including Turkey. If they can do it, so can Europe. Indeed, a cursory reading of European history proves that it has coped with wave after wave of migration.

Refugee backlash

To ask if the refugee backlash is coming would be to pose the wrong question: it is already here.

The mood in Germany and the rest of Europe started turning ugly long before the Paris terrorist attacks and the mass sexual and other crimes in Cologne and other German cities during the New Year’s Eve celebrations that went wrong. Pensioners are up in arms about the way they perceive their country is changing. Parents are concerned about their children’s education as gymnasia are requisitioned as temporary accommodation and class rooms begin to take the strain of absorbing the influx of non-German speakers. House prices and rent levels are being pushed up in an overheating housing market where affordable accommodation is scarce.  Region and local authorities remain deeply concerned about practical matters in addition to shelter, such as state benefits and labour market opportunities for refugees. The issue of integration and whether it is possible to achieve or not, is “the” topic of conversation. This applies to Germany and it applies equally to other EU countries.

Angela Merkel has gone from being Europe’s pre-eminent politician and practically politically unassailable in Germany, to being under siege. Make no mistake about it; she is fighting for her political future.  Yet despite the ratcheting of pressure, even today, she is refusing to put a cap of the number of refugees that will be accepted by Germany in future (the CSU is openly advocating a cap of 200,000 per annum, which itself puts the UK’s response in the shade). There are probably two reasons for this. Firstly, German asylum law is based on individual assessments so caps would not be workable without changing the law (but we know laws can be changed at the drop of a political hat). Secondly, the huge numbers of forcibly displaced people out there (14 million and counting) are desperate and there is no end to their travails in prospect. What would you do in their shoes? Which safe harbour would you try to reach, possibly at the cost of perishing on the way? A cap would be a meaningless promise without a workable EU arrangement.

Mrs Merkel is displaying the hallmark of true leadership: political courage and acknowledging moral duties beyond her nation’s borders. That is the essence of being responsible in a European and global sense, though I recognise fully that many would much rather put national and personal interest before anything else, including in Germany.

Merkel probably expected the rest of Europe, especially the largest countries, most of which have had more than a hand in the unfolding disaster in the Middle East, to take a much greater share of the humanitarian burden. Despite the lessons of Greece, she has miscalculated in relation to most of the EU and is now in the middle of the biggest political crisis that she has ever faced. She also appears to have greatly overestimated the Greek and Turkish capacity to manage their borders.

But she is nothing if not a pragmatic leader. She has recognised that the whirlwind is not just gathering, it is already blowing. A change has already been signaled that 2016 will not be the same as 2015. The scale of the challenge means that Germany cannot shoulder the burden mostly on its own for much longer. All three of the most generous countries have introduced border visa checks (three others have also and many more are threatening to do the same). A closure of national borders has so far been resisted by the EU, but this could change. Sweden has announced that 80,000 of the 160,000 refugees it accepted will be sent back because they are economic migrants, not refugees. The EU has reinforced the message by stating that 60% of the applicants are not refugees at all but economic migrants mainly from the Balkans and North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. It has also threatened to suspend Greece from Schengen for systematic failures in the migrant crisis. In turn Greece is pointing its finger at Turkey for allowing migrants to “swamp” their border and islands.  Reports are piling up that in addition to anti-refugee demonstrations and hostels being set on fire in Germany, violence is erupting in Sweden and other countries.

A common EU approach is the only way forward, combined with a serious and concerted effort to end the conflicts and reconstruct economies, since these are the drivers of mass population displacement. But just like the Greek and Eurozone crises, which are also far from over, it will not happen miraculously or overnight.

So, get ready for a much more hard-nosed European approach to the refugee crisis, with an emphasis on only accepting people from conflict zones (true refugees and asylum seekers) and rejecting all others (i.e. economic migrants). The EU drawbridge is being pulled-up. The wider societal backlash is already underway and those that are leading it will not be pausing to distinguish those that deserve to be helped from those that do not.


I found refuge in the EU. You helped me. Now, let’s help the others.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

The Grexit crisis has blown hot and cold many times in recent years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, by common agreement, there is now an even greater crisis affecting the European Union (EU) and its future, namely the current refugee and asylum seeker crisis. It is not about economic migration; it is a humanitarian crisis.

A Refugee Crisis of Mega Proportions

I have been commenting on the issue of migration on the AngloDeutsch.EU Blog so I cannot but discuss this crisis of mega proportions. I would like to briefly summarize the points of the current situation before presenting a personal perspective below:

  • There is a variety of different types of migrants. The two main categories are “asylum seekers / refugees” who are fleeing something which makes them fear for their lives/safety and “economic migrants” who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families;
  • The difference is fundamental. Each EU member state makes its own decisions in relation to the issue of asylum seekers/refugees within the framework of broad international agreements which appear to be difficult or impossible to enforce. The same applies to economic migrants from outside the EU. Within the EU, a fundamental principle is that of “freedom of movement” of capital, goods, services and people. Consequently, there is no restriction of migration within the EU, except for recently joining countries, such as Croatia. Restrictions remain during a „transition“ period for some countries such as the UK, but other, such as Germany, have chosen to abolish such restrictions even before the transition period lapses;
  • Many politicians and some mainstream media, especially those with an ax to grind, deliberately or otherwise, lump the refugees/asylum seekers, economic migrants and freedom of movement into one giant, emotive issue: this is spurious, confusing and contributes to a heated debate in the EU and elsewhere. In an atmosphere of anxiety about migration in general, this is not helpful;
  • Most EU citizens, British and Germans included, make a clear distinction between economic migrants (there is concern about the level of migration in some countries) and genuine refugees / asylum seekers, where there is generally a good deal of sympathy;
  • The current levels of refugees / asylum seekers must be put into context: it is the highest level since World War II and is the direct result of various conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, not least in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, etc. This is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis. For the first time since World War II, there are more than 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide;
  • Some of the people joining this wave of desperate humanity are taking advantage of the situation. Having worked in Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, etc., all of which are making strides to join the EU, there is little doubt that the vast majority of these applicants are being opportunistic. If this sort of thing is allowed to continue, it may discredit the overall refugees/asylum situation and undermine the willingness to help others;
  • The latest development, since this blog focuses mainly on Britain and Germany, is that the German government has issued what is nothing less than an unprecedented commitment of take in at least 800,000 and possibly a million refugees/asylum seekers this year, not counting other forms of migration, which has been running at very high levels in recent years. By contrast Britain has taken 5,000 Syrians since 2011 and there is a major political debate about whether a target of 10,000 refugees / asylum seekers would be acceptable. The British government, under increasing pressure from ordinary citizens, has just announced that it will accept 20,000 refugees/asylum seekers over five-years (4,000 per year);
  • The main political explanations for this imbalance is that one (Germany) has a shrinking population and therefore needs to take in people but that the other (UK) is an overcrowded island that cannot absorb any more than are already coming in. There is a prominent political view that taking in refugees would not solve the problems in the relevant countries and would simply encourage even larger numbers to come to the EU;

It is up to each person to reflect on whether their respective governments’ policies are appropriate in the face of this human catastrophe, bearing in mind the costs involved as well as the potential knock-on effects on social, health, housing and other services, including the downstream integration issues. There will certainly be implications in the short-, medium- and long-term, since most refugees/asylum seekers that are accepted are likely to remain, even when the crisis is over.

A personal perspective

In the rest of this post, for a change, I shall not focus on the definitions, statistics and policy responses, etc. but the human element using my own migration experiences and those of my family. The point has been reached in this humanitarian crisis where everyone must pin their colours to the mast.

I was born in Mozambique. When I was nine years old, the civil war that quickly followed the war of independence reached stage where by parents finally decided that they had no choice but to abandon the country. There were a series of issues leading to this decision, but the straw that broke the camel´s back was a bomb that blew out the windows in the surrounding buildings. Fear for our safety, combined with a sense of growing injustice, led to a decision to leave everything behind, except for our lives and the clothes on our back. This is the “refugee / asylum seeker drive“ and it is this which is at the bottom of the crisis we are witnessing.

By the time I was 11, my parents had decided that living in Portugal was not for them and that they preferred to leave for the UK, where they felt they could rebuild their lives and offer their children better prospects. This is the „economic migration“ drive, which I shall leave for another day. My family and I have experience of both the “push” drive to get out of a country, as well as the “pull” element of a prosperous country like the UK (Portugal was not a EU member in 1977). As such, I can sympathize with the stream of people heading towards the EU.

Each of these families seeking the safety of Europe will have their own catalyst, but they are generally similar: fear of safety/life/well-being reaches a point where the extremely high barriers to leaving are overcome. Those barriers include family and friends (you leave the people you grew up with behind, probably for ever), possessions (home, furniture, mementos of life, etc.) and communities, traditions and all the other things that make-up everyday life. Only the bare minimum can be taken: people, clothes, food and money.

The decision amounts to rolling the dice that will determine their fate. They know that they may be turned back at any of numerous borders. They are only too aware that they will experience all sorts of privations. They come to terms the stark fact they or members of their family may perish on the way. Yet they are determined to head for Europe and more specifically the EU. Most will do what they are allowed to do, not least where women and children are involved. Some, especially single young men, may do whatever it takes to reach their goal, as the scenes in and around the Channel Tunnel prove.

But even if their drive, courage and determination (for that is exactly what is involved) is rewarded with success and they end-up in the EU and preferably in countries with the resources to successfully absorb them, they also know that it may all be in vain. After all, there is a high chance of being put on an aeroplane and sent home sooner or later, once the crisis is over.

And still they roll the dice, often taking their young children on this incredibly arduous and sometimes lethal journey. Imagine this, if you will, and reflect on what it would take for you to reach such momentous life and death decisions. I ask you:

  • Would you take these sorts of decisions without a very good reason?
  • Are the people who manage to reach Europe´s shores worthy of sanctuary?
  • And if so, are such people likely to have the drive to integrate and thrive in the EU?

Follow your instinct. Form your own opinion.

I am not just a migrant to the EU, I am a serial migrant within the EU. This is not a source of shame. On the contrary, it is a source of great pride which has given meaning to my life. Every country I have lived in had enriched me and, for my part, I have contributed to every country I have had the good fortune to experience. Migration has been and remains a constant feature of humanity.

There may be some seeking to reach the borders of the EU purely for economic reasons, rather than being driven by misfortune not of their own making. It is not so easy to separate out the genuine cases from the bogus ones. But the sheer scale of the crisis, the types of people involved and the risks that they are taking demonstrate that these are, in the main, fellow human beings in desperate need of our help. For them the EU is a beacon for all the things that we take for granted. There can and there will be a win-win situation for them and for the countries taking them in. Europe has absorbed countless waves of immigration in the past and benefited from them; it will continue to do so in the future.

Let us be humane and thereby reaffirm the fundamental values that EU countries are right to be proud of. You helped me. Now, let’s help the others.


British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?

A Historic Turning Point Coming Up?

British voters are weighing up their options, but a strong element of anti-EU sentiment can be detected. The General Election scheduled for 05 May 2015 may well be turn out to be historic. If the Conservative Party wins, it is committed to holding a straight in/out referendum in 2017 about whether Britain is to remain in the EU or not. Previous posts have discussed the role of the eurosceptic Conservative wing and the role played by the Ukip party in the hardening Conservative and Labour Party stance in relation to the EU and EU-related immigration. Previous posts have also discussed a growing anti-Euro and anti-Islam sentiment in Germany, though it is materially different and not as pervasive as in the UK. No obvious anti-EU sentiment can be detected, which is why this post focuses mainly on Britain.

A reading of opinion polls illustrates that the balance of British public opinion, which has never exactly been EUphoric since joining in 1973, appears to be turning stringently EUrosceptic. The common assumption among quite a few politicians and a large segment of the media seems to be that life would become instantly better if only Britain would jettison membership of the EU, regain “control over its borders”, thus stopping “uncontrolled” migration along with excessive “interference” from Brussels in British affairs. But is this really the case? How much would actually change overnight, as far as the voters’ priorities are concerned?

Voter Priorities (2010-2015)

With the British general election not so far away, it is worth asking: just how much would actually change in people’s lives if the UK were to leave EU in terms of immediately improving life in Britain, based on the issues that matter to voters? To address this thought experiment, I have used the latest Ipsos MORI poll which asks about the top concerns of British voters.

British voter priorities 2010-2015

In January 2015 four issues predominated in terms what is important to voters, namely healthcare (almost half), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (27%) and education/schools (20%). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is a pretty low rate in the UK (less than 10% note it as being important). A further five issues are of some importance in terms of voting intentions (benefits, taxation, housing, foreign affairs and pensions).

Table 1 shows some change since 2010, but the top four priorities have been fairly consistent. What is noticeable, however, is that whereas economy and education have not changed, both health and immigration have risen significantly in importance to British voters since 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, housing is increasing in importance but remains a secondary priority for British voters.

Voter Priorities and UK vs. EU Responsibilities

On the basis of the voter’s priorities, it is worth asking the question: what exactly are the responsibilities of the British Government and what is affected by the EU? On the basis of this question, it is possible to assess what might change for Britons.

UK EU competencies

Below I discuss these issues briefly, focusing first on the top four voter priorities:

  • Health: The Department of Health is entirely responsible for the NHS in terms of budget, priorities, reforms, etc. The main EU influence is in enabling the citizens of the EU-28 to be fully covered when they go to other EU countries without the need for additional health insurance for work, holidays, study, etc. It also allows people to choose where they wish to be treated, if the services are better or waiting lists are shorter. Health Tourism is an issue concerning non-EU citizens, rather than for EU ones. Nothing dramatic would change tomorrow, if the UK were to leave the EU in terms of quality of care, waiting lists, response rates or any of the other key issues of concern to the British voter. If anything, choice is likely to be reduced and extra costs incurred when British citizens travel to the EU. In terms of EU residents living in the UK and their use of the health service, not much would change. If they are working, they are also paying for the NHS through their National Insurance contributions. Otherwise, they would have to insure themselves privately and still have access to health in Britain. The exception would be if the UK chooses to deport, something that is barely imaginable. Verdict: no change. There are no magical solutions to the problems of the health service in Britain. The trends are neither recent nor connected with membership of the EU.
  • Economy: the UK is entirely in charge of its macro- and micro-economic destiny, since it is not part of the euro and thus not affected by the eurozone rules. The UK can affect its interest rates and implement quantitative easing to its heart’s content. The Stability and Growth Pact does have requirements, such as no budget deficits greater than 3% of GDP, no public debt exceeding 60% of GDP without diminishing by 5% per year on average over 3 years. Verdict: nothing would change. The UK and many other countries have greatly exceeded these limits at a time of serious economic and financial concerns. Britain is 100% in charge of its destiny, unlike Greece, Spain, etc. The Chancellor has already set in train further drastic reductions in public expenditure in the next period of Government. There is nothing about the programme of austerity that the British Government can pin on the EU, which is probably why this has not been tried, unlike for example Greece.
  • Asylum/immigration: as I have previously discussed, there are three elements here. Firstly, the UK is entirely in charge of its asylum policy and can choose who to let in and who to keep out. The same applies to non-EU immigration, which Britain is entirely in charge of. These elements comprised over 68% of immigration (together with Britons returning to the UK). The EU cannot and does not interfere with this but the balance (32%) is EU migrants. Many international companies are based in Britain that require access to the global pool of human resources to maintain their standards and profitability. On balance, basing a decision to leave the EU because of the freedom of movement of people principle and perceptions of “uncontrolled immigration” in the last decade does not appear to be justified. The unemployment rate remains at 5.8% (compared with 6.5% in Germany and 11.4% in the EU), despite a long period of intense economic and financial crisis. A critical issue that affects voter sentiment is net wages, which is determined by the companies located in Britain, as well as the public employers. If Britain were to stop EU and any other form of immigration (it is doubtful that employers would welcome this) the perceived pressures on health, housing and social services would not change since most EU immigrants would presumably remain. The exception is if such a police were to be combined with (forced) repatriation, which is unimaginable at the present time. If so, in theory Britain would have to make allowance for the 1.3 million Britons in other EU countries to return from EU countries to the UK. Verdict: possible short-term gain but likely long-term loss. The change would affect 32% of Immigration (2012 data) at the very most, but asylum and immigration would not end. There would only be perceptible changes, if a policy of terminating EU immigration were to be combined with deportation. I cannot imagine the average British voter wanting this or the consequences of enforcing such a policy.
  • Education/schools: this is entirely the responsibility of the UK and the pressures have been decades in the making. The issue that the EU has concentrated on is harmonizing qualifications and certification to ensure greater scope for freedom of movement of workers. This is advantageous for Britons as well as for others. Verdict: no change. The children of EU migrants make-up a small percentage of all children in schools across the country. If their parents are working here, they are entitled to study in Britain unless the Government and the British electorate wishes to evoke the deportation route.

So in terms of the most important issues to UK voters, there is not a huge amount of immediate gain from Brexit, based on the top four voter priorities. I am not even going to discuss the possible losses which would be the consequence of gaining control over EU immigration. Britain is already in charge of two of the three key elements of immigration, which makes up the majority of immigration. It is an island, which gives it more protection than others in the era of globalisation. The fear that there is uncontrolled immigration from the EU is overdone. When the economic downturn started, many EU migrants simply left the UK of their own accord and the migratory pattern turned towards Germany instead, the only EU country experiencing strong economic growth. When the UK economy started growing again in mid-2014, the immigration trend started reversing (though probably influenced by the A2 countries,namely Romania and Bulgaria). In any case, if the unemployment rate is 5.8% and decreasing, it is worth asking the question: who is employing the EU migrants and benefiting from their contribution to the economy, to tax inflows and to company profits? Might the answer be Britons and Britain? If the real issue is decreasing net wages and benefits in Britain, the question is who is gaining from this development? Might the answer be certain segments of British society?

Below I address the remaining voter priorities:

  • Europe/EU: The issue which the EU insist on is that the freedom of movement of people (as well as goods, services, capital) be maintained, allowing all EU citizens to travel for tourism, study, work and retirement purposes. Many, if not most Britons, enjoy some or all of these freedoms in one way or another. 1.3 million Briton live in other EU countries, and a large number travel, work, study, invest (e.g. second homes and pension funds) or retire in EU countries. This is something which is currently taken for granted at present. I believe the loss will be felt much more rapidly and keenly than most British voters may realise.
  • Unemployment: leaving the EU might result in less European migrants, but it would not put an end to EU immigration or lead to zero unemployment. British-based enterprises compete globally for many skills essential to maintain productivity and innovation. I doubt that there would be a significant reduction in qualified labour coming from the EU.It is not certain that the agricultural, tourism, hospitality, etc. businesses would be able to satisfy their needs simply from UK-based sources. There might be a reduction in less qualified labour and thus in unemployment but this is unlikely to be more one or two percentage points and will lead to other pressures. Verdict: possible short term gain but likely long term loss.
  • Benefits: very few EU migrants claim benefits. Immigrants were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives during 2000-2011. They are also less likely to live in social housing than the UK born population. EU migrants of working age who are not students, not in employment and receive some kind of state benefit, amount to 39,000 or less than 1% of all foreign nationals in the UK and 1% of all EU nationals in the UK.  Recent analysis of 23 out of 27 EU countries shows that there are at least 30,000 Britons claiming unemployment benefit in countries around the EU. In other words 2.5% of Britons in other EU countries are claiming unemployment benefits, roughly the same as EU nationals doing the same in Britain. The numbers are tiny: the political and media coverage of this issue is completely disproportionate. If this is the case, an even smaller sub-set of them are living in Britain for benefit tourism/abuse purposes. Verdict: no change (but one less emotive topic for certain parts of the media and politicians to bang their biased drum about).
  • Taxation: the UK is in entirely in charge of all its taxes, including Corporate Income Tax, Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax and VAT. Verdict: no change.
  • Housing: The UK is entirely in charge of its housing policy, construction, planning system, etc. There would be fewer EU immigrants, which might affect the housing situation in terms of rent levels and house prices. However, this would only be a marginal effect since the trend in housing supply, demand and pricing is a long term trend of over 30 years and any nationality is able to buy property in Britain. I have already referred to the fact that fewer recent immigrants claim benefits and live in social housing than the UK born population. Verdict: no change. I have written the first of my blog posts comparing the British and German housing systems to illustrate aspects of this point.
  • Foreign affairs: in terms of foreign affairs this role is, to some extent, coordinated with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for specific issues. In the main, each EU nation does its own thing and Britain is no different.
  • Pensions: the UK is entirely in charge of the retirement age, contributions, qualifying years, minimum state pension pensions, etc. The EU facilitates freedom of movement of people and capital, so develops rules to ensure that if people work in different countries, that their contributions are acknowledged and count towards their overall pension entitlement. Furthermore, it seeks to ensure, under the same two freedoms, that Britons and others can receive their state pension in any of the EU-28 countries without suffering from arbitrary reductions, cancellations, fees, etc. Since many Britons enjoy their retirement in the sun and have bought second homes in other EU countries (rather more than is the case in terms of EU nationals buying properties in the UK), it would appear that to be well worth remaining in the EU.

EUroscepticism: much ado about nothing?

Ultimately, it is up for each voter to assess their personal gain or loss from staying in or leaving the EU. Based on the analysis above, the anti-EU sentiment is much ado about nothing, as far as the most important issues to voters are concerned, except for the freedom of movement of people. The EU has helped to secure so many rights and opportunities across all 28 nations that it is hard to imagine life without them. It is not simply that not much would change overnight. A moment of reflection on what would be rolled back as a result of leaving the EU, should show just how much we perceive as being normal and do not even actively consider. The fact is that we usually do not miss that which we take for granted… until it is no longer there.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU