We need to separate the Europe debate from migration and bring it back to the democratic deficit, sovereignty and the question of net-contribution

UK should remain part of a reformed European Union. We need to separate the Europe debate from migration and bring it back to the democratic deficit, sovereignty, net-contribution and standardization question.

Of all those I have spoken to who have been out on the street campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Union, the most prevalent point being made to them by passers-by has been immigration. Admittedly it is an easy stick to use for the ‘leave’ campaign, just as the paraphrased James Carville quote of ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has been an easy carrot to use for the ‘remain’ campaign. But it is confusing none-the-less. I think the debate has been hijacked.


One of the UK’s most liked comedic political commentators, David Mitchell, has gone as far to suggest that such a serious matter as membership of the EU should be left to Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum though and, to his credit, here we are. Whether we like it or not, our elected representative promised us (and his Party) a referendum, and he is fulfilling that manifesto commitment.

My own position – I will just throw it out there – is that we should remain part of a reformed European Union. One which focusses on free trade and the single market but which does not try to dabble in Statehood. Okay, that distinction is very hazy but my general position equates to asking Europe for rules on product health and safety – yes, but nutrition – no.

But it wasn’t all about Eastern Europeans stealing jobs, was it?

When I studied European Political Economy ten years ago a British question of Europe and membership of the European Union was about sovereignty, about “our money” and about “bringing back democracy” and fighting against “Ever Closer Union”. But it wasn’t all about Eastern Europeans stealing jobs (when Romania and Bulgaria joining was topical) was it?

It was supposed to be about Brussels forbidding ‘curved bananas’ and creating ‘mountains of butter’, about imposing metric systems and about forcing the UK military to eventually merge into a super-state army. But Euroscepticism was distanced from a desire to control the hoards of ‘barbarians’ and ‘scroungers’ rolling across Europe to reach the golden shores of the UK. Perhaps that was the political correctness of the time or perhaps they were two separate debates?

I do not agree that the immigration debate in the UK is not ‘above the understanding of the rich’ as one major UK newspaper suggested, it is simply something which waxes and wanes with economic cycles. Whilst we probably shouldn’t continue to embarrass former Prime Minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown with his erstwhile assertion that we won’t ‘return to Boom and Bust’ we clearly are and will clearly continue to do so albeit in a hopefully lighter manner.

Immigration only appears to be a problem when immigrants are visibly or audibly considered different.

Immigration is clearly a hugely important topic and we need to address it. However, in the UK, as in the rest of the world, is has been used as a byword for the ‘other’ being at fault for current failings. Clearly the UK is not coping as well as it should with its swelling population and clearly there is the question of fairness and social justice regarding the redistribution of wealth, but the question, I would argue, is certainly not Europe.

Immigration only appears to be a problem when immigrants are visibly or audibly considered different. One generation later and most of those previous European immigrants do not appear in the mainstream media as ‘threats’ or ‘draining our resources’. Did they integrate better? Who knows? Perhaps the only thing we could say with some certainty is that they don’t look too different to the rest of the UK population.


We’re not out on the streets shouting about those Hugenot refugees from the C18th, we are not campaigning against Ashkenazi and Sephardic immigrants (anymore) from the C19th and early C20th, and we say absolutely nothing about Polish immigration in the 1960s – but you do indeed find mainstream campaigns against other different looking groups who arrived following Acts of Parliament in 1948 and afterwards but who I will not mention for fear of adding to their being singled out.

Why is there no outcry over the ONS Census report that there are 150,000 French, 126,000 German and, for example 33,000 Swedish nationals living in the UK? Is it because they are wealthier than the 170,000 Romanian nationals in the UK? It is easy for people to play about with unemployment statistics by introducing ‘workless’, ‘NEET’, or even ‘housewife’ categories, so I am not about to pretend that this is Gospel but here in the UK we’re down to 5.4% unemployment from just under 10% a few years ago. At the same time immigration has risen. To misquote Donald Trump ‘…what the hell is going on?’. Clearly if you squeeze the data enough it will tell you anything you want to know.

We need to separate the Europe debate from migration and bring it back to the democratic deficit, sovereignty, net-contribution and standardisation question. That is where we as a country are going to get the most out of this referendum. We are becoming more informed and for those of us who want to see a reformed Europe, the more people asking important questions the better. We are not going to get anywhere productive clamoring to reintroduce something like the 1905 Aliens Act to block specific ethnic or religious groups.

“Europe” needs to be accessible.

Yes, “Europe” needs to be accessible. We need to sort out the number of Directorate Generals in the Commission to avoid mission-creep, admit that we currently have ‘national Commissioners’, and make the general public’s understanding of the co-decision making process under Article 294 TEU between the unelected Commission and the elected European Parliament so that we can begin to work out exactly where democracy stops and bureaucracy starts. I make no apologies if that’s too boring to the wider public. The Large Hadron Collider is confusing to me but I don’t pretend it’s not important.

Ultimately, we have hurt our standing in the “Club” in the short term. Quite understandable, really. Imagine you try to buy equity in an already existing start-up company. They are skeptical because you didn’t want to join in the beginning but eventually they let you in. Down the line you announce to everyone that you might want to quit and give up your equity for a number of reasons including the ethnic origin of other members. Even if subsequently you tell your founding partners that it was a false alarm, they are going to find you flaky. It’s the British Public’s right to decide, but we have to understand what that means.

Phelim Rowe

Phelim Rowe is an International Conference Director and Analyst with experience both in international private industry and the UK civil service. He has various interests in public policy on the local and...

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