Last week, Britain voted to leave the European Union, passing the “Brexit” referendum with a 52% majority. Brexit will likely have tumultuous consequences across Britain and Europe.
I am not an expert in European affairs; Casa Marj is focused on the Americas. I do not pretend to predict all the economic and political consequences of a British exit from the EU. However, Brexit worries me not only for its likely material political and economic consequences, but also for what it represents on a cultural level. This blog is about migration, and so, in large part, was the sentiment that drove the British people to pass the exit referendum.
Many British people are worried about their economy and their future. And just like in the United States, where people use immigrants as a scapegoat for that fear and anxiety, the same thing has happened in Britain. The British claim immigrants are “invading” and that their national culture will be diluted. They worry that immigrants will take all the jobs, that their economy will suffer.
The problem is, the immigrants do not cause the economic problems that the British–not to mention Americans–are experiencing. If immigrants are willing to work for lower wages, it is because those are the jobs that are available. Yet if business owners and corporations are not willing to pay higher wages, that is not the immigrants’ fault. It is because these profit-driven enterprises want to maximize financial gains as much as possible, and will take advantage of any opportunity to pay workers less. Immigrants are not asking for lower wages: owners are simply not offering higher wages.
Aside from the economic fear, much of the pro-Brexit campaign capitalized on a fear of cultural dilution. This cultural nativism is ultimately no more than a mask for racism. Migrants coming from Eastern Europe and the Middle East are seen as lesser than Anglo-Saxons. But cultural exchange causes vibrance and innovation when it is not tainted by prejudice and closemindedness.
What disturbs me even more is that Brexit was driven by the same anti-immigrant sentiment that is powering Donald Trump and conservatives across the United States. Nativism, xenophobia, and racism, they are dangerous and they are arising across continents at this time. The rise of Trump and the passage of Brexit are not isolated incidents, but different expressions of the same theme. These phenomena rely upon fear to power prejudice. Instead of revealing the true causes of economic problems or responding positively to cultural change, they cling to an idealized past where white men were “great” (“Make America Great Again”). Nor are these ideas restricted to Britain and the U.S. Anti-immigrant factions are gaining power throughout Europe.
We need to have faith in the future, rather than fear changes and outsiders. Closing ourselves off to immigrants can only lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Opening our borders and our hearts can lead to mutual understanding and respect. In times like these, it is ever more important that we remain open and willing to work with all of our neighbors, rather than closing ourselves off in an isolated and unrealistic past.