The EU referendum debacle has, regrettably, boiled down to a choice between David Cameron’s business-oriented ‘Project Fear’ and Ukip’s anti-migrant sentiment.
For left-wing progressives, a Remain vote in support of an institution which prioritises profits over people flies in the face of socialist ideology. The alternative – Brexit, with its overtones of jumped-up xenophobia – is equally unappetising.
But what will actually happen if the UK leaves the EU? Is it really all doom and gloom?
1. The EU won’t implode.
There are mixed opinions on what the impact of Brexit would be on the EU itself. Some speculate that Britain’s exit would encourage other member states to hold referendums of their own: a ‘domino effect’. Surging euroscepticism seems to walk hand-in-hand with Europe’s swing to the right, and Morten Messerschmidt, an MEP with the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party has described Cameron’s in-out referendum as an ‘inspiration’.
Optimists suggest that Britain’s exit from the EU could actually strengthen what is ‘good’ about the Union. The UK has famously been a dissenting voice within the EU: from 2009-2015 it voted against legislation in 13.3% of cases and failed to ratify some of the most crucial pieces of policy the EU has produced, such as the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women. Throw into the mix the fact that David Cameron is one of the biggest cheerleaders for the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would (amongst other things) give corporations the power to sue governments for loss of profits, and it begins to look like the EU might function better without the UK gumming up the works.
A more moderate outcome is presented by analysts who suggest that these ‘domino effect’ referendums are unlikely to mirror Britain’s ‘in-out’ question, but will probably focus on re-negotiating specific terms. This could result in an EU which survives Britain’s referendum, but emerges looking more like a ‘loose allegiance’ of member states.
2. EU migrants won’t ‘suddenly’ get deported (because they are already being deported).
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, if Britain leaves the EU but continues to participate in free movement as part of a free trade deal (the most likely Brexit scenario), EU migrants living in the UK will not be impacted.
We can hazard that EU migrants who have been living in the UK for more than three months and exercising treaty rights (such as working or studying) will not experience significant changes to their rights. EU migrants who have been exercising treaty rights in the UK for more than five years, and thus have permanent residency status, are even less likely to experience any change. Helena Wray, editor of the Journal of Immigration Asylum and Nationality Law, warns that removing or changing the status of these individuals would likely provoke legal challenges.
EU migrants who have been in the UK for less than three months may be more vulnerable, simply because they currently have fewer rights within this period. For example, at the moment an EU migrant can only apply for jobseeker’s allowance after three months of residence in the UK, on the condition of passing the ‘habitual residence test’ (although Cameron wants to ramp this up to four years for certain benefits).
With this in mind, Brexit might actually invite an influx of migration from the EU into the UK, from people eager to ‘clock up’ their residency status during the two-year negotiation period during which the free movement right will still apply.
Britain’s immigration system, which incarcerates people indefinitely in profit-making detention centres, will not be ‘made fairer’ by shutting out yet another community of migrants. Under Operation Nexus, the government is already rolling out illegal targeted deportations of people to eastern European countries, many for simply sleeping rough or ‘coming to the attention of the police’. So the deportations are already happening, and vitally the push-back is happening too.
3. The economy won’t plummet (nor will it boom).
Economists at Open Europe estimate that if the UK leaves the EU and fails to strike a trade deal with the rest of the Union, gross domestic product (GDP) will drop by 2.2%.
Conversely, in a ‘best case’ post-Brexit scenario, where the UK strikes a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, pursues deregulation of its economy and consolidates trade partnerships outside of the EU, GDP could be 1.6% higher thanks to Brexit.
But let’s be frank: the potential negative impact of Brexit on the UK’s economy will likely be negated by a trade deal which will effectively replicate the status quo – which renders the whole circus somewhat… pointless?
4. The ‘refugee crisis’ won’t disappear.
A useful analysis of any wave of refugee movement examines ‘push factors’ rather than ‘pull factors’ – and these are unequivocally US and Europe-driven conflict and socio-economic inequality. Brexit will not mean the end of these conflicts and inequalities. At the World Economic Forum in January, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said: “What is most important is to invest billions into those regions from which the refugees come.” In addition, a proper humanitarian response to the crisis will require a coordinated, cross-border approach.
Brexit will not enable Britain to ‘shut the borders’, because they are already shut: the UK is not part of the Schengen Area. One interesting post-Brexit prospect is that if Britain leaves the EU, France may withdraw from the 2003 Le Touquet Treaty, which at the moment pushes Britain’s southern border back to Calais. If the Le Touquet Treaty dissolves, many of the people stuck at the camp in Calais will be able to cross the Channel to England. Far from sweeping the Mediterranean’s migrant crisis under the carpet, Brexit could bring ‘Europe’s’ migrant crisis to Britain’s own shores. About time too.
5. Britain won’t magically acquire a government with progressive politics.
And this is the kicker: whatever you think about the EU and Troika’s punishing austerity measures, and about ‘Fortress Europe’ and its racist and classist immigration policies – with right-wing neoliberal governments holding fort at national level the situation is pretty bad whether Britain is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU.
It is vital that discussions which have fired up around the referendum – including around workers’ and migrants’ rights – continue way beyond 23 June. Brexit would most likely mean a swing to the right, as we’ve observed happening across the continent, and a galvanising of Ukip-bolstered xenophobia. A Remain result would mean a return to the status quo which, considering the ‘hostile environment’ Theresa May is already creating for migrants in Britain and the creeping erosion of employment rights, is an equally horrifying prospect.
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