You’ve got to ride the big wave when it comes in, and Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is certainly enjoying his at the moment.
No one can really know how long the UKIP bounce will last. It is also true that a shift to the right is echoed in other countries such as France and the Netherlands. But the combination of a fear of immigrants with the sheer extent of dislike for the European Union seems especially pronounced in the UK. As a German national, who has lived on three continents, I look at this attitude as self-defeating.
UKIP turns understandable, rational concerns into eye-popping, terrifying propaganda: It goes something like, economically weaker people being out on the street because foreign workers have taken their jobs; children being stolen by Romanian gypsies or dragged into drug habits by Bulgarian mafia; our social security system overrun by immigrants who use public services without having “paid their dues” first. Onto this burning pyre is added the notion that we are all made poor by a European Union that regulates us to death, imposes German rigidity and moves our money to Southern Europe.
But I can offer counterpropaganda of a terrifying future related to what UKIP wants to do, a story that is easily as plausible as theirs. After leaving the EU, the economy falters because critical skills (everything from heavy farm work to financial analysts and scientists) are no longer available; old people are evicted from their homes as pensions are cut (as a result of there being too few people of working age to support them); unemployment skyrockets as London loses its lure as a financial centre (to a combination of Paris, Frankfurt and Zurich) and some of the largest UK companies are bought by Indian and Chinese conglomerates, who move R&D abroad and rationalise away half of the remaining jobs; and the IMF imposes an austerity budget on the UK to help the country deal with a downward spiral of debts, deflation and unemployment, and further debts.
Far fetched? Evidence is already starting to come in: China alone is spending £100bn on investment abroad this year, a big chunk of which comes to the UK – indeed; UK companies are passing into foreign ownership as I write. We already have a skills gap in the UK (not helped by the restrictive policy on immigration, even for skilled people). Immigrants on average contribute to the social system and help balance out the aging population: we know the number of over 65-year-olds will almost double to 19 million in the UK by 2050. President Obama has told David Cameron explicitly and in public that the UK would lose clout in international politics if it left the EU.
Yes, the EU is imperfect, too bureaucratic and too far removed from its citizens. But it is essential for Europe – without it, Europe consists of tiny countries who have no influence on the world stage. Without the EU, Europeans will all be pushed around by the old and new world powers: only together can we have our say. We need to reform the EU, not leave it; we would only be hurting ourselves.
Of course, I understand that someone who just lost his or her job might say that it is easy for me to say these things, especially as I am a European foreigner myself (although I don’t feel too bad about this, not least because I am in very good company – Nigel Farage’s wife is also German). I, too, worry about people made vulnerable by a world of increasing technology and global competition.
But it is just not honest to pretend that this uncertainty can be avoided by simply shutting out foreigners and leaving the EU. Though it might save jobs in the immediate future, it would only make the country less competitive, and thus make us all poorer, in the longer run. The race for innovation and productivity will keep going. The way to help those in danger of being left behind by technology and global competition is to educate and train them. This is not a new idea. For example, Denmark’s Flexicurity model has shown that even in a labour market with low job security, unemployment can be low if people are financially supported and helped to get the skills to find employment again. The benefit of this model is NOT lower cost – in spite of an unemployment rate of below 6%, the costs of the system are high because of the high investment in training. But the result is a people living with less fear and therefore less need to reject immigration (within limits) and its benefits to the economy.
We should be pushing for help that matters in the long run, rather than just a quick protectionist fix. But although these kinds of measures would relieve the very problems UKIP say they are campaigning on, I don’t expect to hear them arguing for them soon.