You are currently viewing Little information and appeal to Britishness. How migration has become the main issue in Brexit debate

Little information and appeal to Britishness. How migration has become the main issue in Brexit debate

A recent video posted by The Financial Times showed a gentle pastel-dressed English old lady smiling to the camera. While her cheekbones suggested fresh baked cookies around a cup of tea, when asked about her intention to vote at the referendum her steel voice firmly cut one word “Britishness”. This fear of losing the quintessence of Great Britain (not discussing if such a thing exists or not) constitutes one of the main causes ‘Brexiters’ put in advance when motivating their will to abandon the perilous water of European membership. Whether a list of well established characteristic of Britishness is debatable, lost of national identity has been twinned with lost of sovereignty since the beginning of the process of European integration. During the last months of referendary campaign, public opinion has been shaken the more and more violently by an escalation of commentaries on migration, pushed in front of the Leave campaign. Even if London is a historical example of meltin’ pot culture, the attitude of the country as a whole has been gradually shaped by nationalist and xenophobic forces.

At European level, immigration has been increasingly felt as a particular challenge, as showed by a survey released by the European Parliament last October. In 2013, when asked what was the main challenge facing the EU and its Member States in order to face the future, the answer pointed basically to the financial crisis. In the EU-28, 55% of the respondents considered unemployment the first challenge, followed by social inequalities (33%), public debt of Member States (32%) and access to jobs for young people (29%). At the same time, migration was considered of primary importance only by 14% of the respondents. In 2015, the answer to the same question showed an increase of 33% of those declaring immigration as the first challenge, and an increase of 15% of those indicating terrorism. Against this European trend, in 2013 the main phenomenon to tackle perceived in the UK was unemployment (49%), followed by immigration (37%, higher than EU average) and terrorism in the third place (30%). In 2015, the podium was differently occupied: migration came first (52%, with an increase of 15% since 2013), then terrorism (39%, or 9% more than 2013) and, finally, unemployment (38%, or a decrease of 11%). If we consider that in the same period unemployment rate in the UK decreased from 7.6% to 5.3% (Eurostat 2016), the change in its perception is motivated, while the extent reflects the diversion of attention to the “migration crisis” and other phenomena perceived as consequences/ part of the problem. As the most recent figures provided by Eurostat show, net migration has slightly increased from a crude rate at national level of 3,8 in 2013 to 4.9 in 2014, lower, for example, than Italy’s 2013 rate of 19,7 or Germany’s 2014 rate of 7,2.

Net migration, national identity and discourse framing

Perception of migrants, coming either from EU either from third countries, is largely shaped within the current context by the perception of self. In cultural terms, a positive political discourse could have helped to support the Remain cause, but until now the campaign has focused its message of “migrants as a resource” only in economical terms. This last phenomenon has been reinforced by the large support of companies to the Remain side.

Under the perspective of enrichment, the orientation to vote to Remain could have been supported through a relatively positive attitude towards cultural diversity. With regard to EU migrants, in 2015 76% of UK citizens agreed that the presence of nationals from other EU Member States contributed to the diversity of cultural life in their country, against a European average (EU-28) of 66% (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2015). A further differentiation has to be mentioned, as within Great Britain there is an ongoing process of emerging English nationalism with a Eurosceptic penchant, while in Scotland citizens are generally pro-Europe, with their Scottish National Party foreseeing an eventual second independence referendum if Brexit will become a reality. At the same time, in Wales the Independent Party (Cymru Annibynnol) has a more utilitarian stake in remaining in the EU, namely pursuing the fruitful participation at Structural Funds programs. If Scotland has benefited economically of its oil resources, England has been the more concerned by deindustrialisation, started by Margaret Thatcher and completed under Tony Blair. Along with the need of a transition in production terms, England has not fully achieved a transition in identity terms. Blair’s government devolution of powers to newly-instituted assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast made once more England feel deprived of its centrality within the UK, after the demise of its colonial centrality in the Commonwealth and the Empire. The idea of regaining the sovereignty, lost by accessing the European Economic Community in 1973, is at the centre of the Leave campaign today, in a way as a consequence of this recherche de l’identité perdue.

Campaign strategy of fear: benefit tourism vs fact and figures

In her intervention at the at CEPS in Brussels on 13 June 2016, political scientist Sophia Vasilopoulou (University of York) affirmed that one of the most powerful emotions Brexit campaigners have targeted until now is fear, combined with anxiety. Even if in electoral terms emotions are neutral as: “from a democracy point of view, anxiety can be positively seen, because motivates citizens to get more informed”, positivity or negativity come from the context in which the potential (perceived) risk is framed by campaigners to influence voters. Even fear, in her statement, has no value per se, but is a ‘massive weapon’ because it triggers the “will to eliminate concretely an obstacle”, which magnifies actual activation against abstention or vote in favour of the status quo. In this referendary campaign, fear has been framed with respect to migration negatively by the Leave partisanship, while the Remain camp has centred simply abstained from a true defence. This last message has insisted on rational reasoning with economical pros and cons of migration, in terms of contribution to different sectors of the economy (services, tech industry, culture and science), but without resorting to the emotional side of the message.

Migration has historically been a scapegoat for problems within a society, nothing new on British soil. Politically, both Conservatives and Labour have integrated the issue in their programmes, coupling it with different matters. In the present case, fear of migration has been exploited by Leavers in association with fear of terrorism and poverty: on one hand, extra-EU migration managed at European level has been presented as reinforcement of the risk of incurring in terrorist attacks, notably with incoming foreign fighters. On the other hand, intra-EU migrants have been depicted as undeservedly exploiters of British National Welfare. On this last point, the last phase of the campaign has seen some Tories among the partisans of the Leave side, namely Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, reiterating the imminent threat of a “Turkish invasion” following the alleged accession of Turkey in the EU – a move that resembles more to the traditional UKIP communication. While in rational choice terms these politicians are playing the card of populism, the message once spread has gained more and more importance, an echo that has started to reach the more deprived social strata in de-industrialised regions. In these areas, Labour has traditionally been the first choice: since the absence of clear facts in the debate has put the blame on freedom of movement, the strongest edge-cut declarations of UKIP and pro-Brexit Tories have been gradually pierced the left-wing electorate.

To sum up, three major elements have characterized the campaign until now:

  1. The campaign has been conducted without recourse to professional expertise (academics/think thanks), with an explicit denial of resorting to this kind of knowledge by anti-establishment parties (as experts are seen as part of the “system”) and a more implicit attitude by moderates tempted by the populist flair. A large part of the electorate is, in this respect, unaware of the accessible facts and figures or doesn’t have a degree of education that allows an individual research of a deeper knowledge;
  2. Both Labour party and the Conservatives partisans of Remain have adopted ambiguous positions. Labour, before under Ed Miliband and now under James Corbyn, has even called for a “control on migration” in its 2015 Manifesto, probably trying to keep close the low-wage affiliated that contemplate migration as a threat in terms of competition in the national labour market, as mentioned above;
  3. The Tory government and the national right-wing oriented press have insisted negatively on immigration as main issue. Firstly, David Cameron and his acolytes have played too far with the card of ‘established success’ of February 2016 ‘new settlement’ agreement between UK and EU-27. The chapter of restrained possibility for new incoming migrants to UK to claim social benefit and the chapter against an “ever closer Union” de facto suggested that behind the measures there was a negative phenomenon. Few months of campaign and few declarations by companies’ associations have not been enough communicative to erase this kind of prejudice against the so-called ‘benefit tourists’. At the same time, national right-wing press (The Daily Telegraph, The Sun) has amplified the proposal of most passionate Brexiters, as the introduction of a new system of migrants’ acceptance based on the Australian regulation, even if several surveys have showed that British citizens are not convinced by it.

Actually, the myth of the “benefit tourist” has been debunked by a clear cut study produced by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. Published in May, the Report on “EU Migration, Welfare Benefits and EU Membership” has enlightened several key points worth to mention in order to discredit common discourse on EU-migrants.

First of all, the real criterion to discuss EU nationals’ access to UK’s system of benefit is activity: with a job, migrants from EU have similar access as UK citizens, while for jobseekers or people not working, rules for eligibility vary significantly according with the type of benefit. Under UK law, a European Economic Area (UE27+Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) citizen needs to have a job “genuine and effective” to claim in-work benefits, automatically valid if the worker earns at least 155 pound per week (equivalent to about 23 hours of work at the 2015-16 minimum wage).

Secondly, the researchers found that, compared to UK-born, EU migrants are more likely to claim in-work benefits, like tax credits. Among this group of active members of society, available data suggest that only between 10-20% newly arrived EU adults received tax credits in early 2014 and more than half of EEA adults that reported receiving tax credits in 2015 were working full time.

In conclusion, migration has been exploited as a fear trigger by Brexit camp, but not really addressed by the Remain one, because of the heterogeneity of the parts involved (and lack of a ‘block strategy’). In an article published online on Social Europe, economist Thomas Fazi has commented on how the daily life of the British citizens and the most dramatic effects of a policy change on their daily life are still determined by decisions taken autonomously by national government: “The fundamental problem with the whole Brexit debate is that both sides of the argument are premised on a wildly embellished notion of the extent to which being part of EU impacts (positively or negatively) the scope of government action (..) This is what makes this whole debate so surreal. The decision to slash social provisions to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society (such as disabled people); to cut funding for libraries, healthcare, education and environmental protection, while allowing massive corporations to get away with paying little or no taxes; to part-privatise the NHS, etc”. And again on perceived crisis “while the reasons include a failure to build council housing, the lack of an industrial strategy to promote skilled secure jobs, economic policies that have slashed living standards and cut services, these culprits are not readily identified. Immigration has become a convenient framework to understand ever growing social and economic insecurities”.

As several cases presented by the Guardian and The Independent have shown, it is because of government policies that there is a structural lack of available workforce, basically requiring several sectors to employ foreigners. In 2015 one in four nurses had to be recruited abroad because of a slash of nursing training places, that has provoked original solutions as the newly twinning between the hospital of Preston and the association of Italian nurses.

These positive examples have not sufficiently been spread among public audience, and will not probably be the object of these last bitter days of campaign.

Francesca Sanna

For further information:

  • The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford,


Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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