Is Brexit the new normal? By this I don’t mean simply the act of leaving the EU, but more the quixotic political cocktail of nostalgia, anti-immigration and the impulse to seal off borders from cosmopolitan influences in favour of nativist urges?
All over Europe, from the Swedish Democrats and True Finns in the north to the Northern League in Italy in the south, from the Brexiteers in the west to Orban’s Hungary in the east, the forces of populism are evident and they are not going away.
One of the most bizarre and unhinged incarnation of nativism was on display on Wednesday night in Washington during US president Donald Trump’s rambling but “must see” press conference. Nativism is changing politics across the globe.
In the weeks ahead, the Brexiteers will fulminate at the Tory party conference about the EU’s intransigence and the commission’s bureaucratic nit-picking which – as they see it – is preventing Britain from embarking on a great buccaneering adventure untethered from meddling mandarins in Brussels. This story, although colourful, does not reflect the true reason for the EU’s unified stance on Brexit.
The real reason has little to do with the EU’s economic concerns about Monaghan, Tyrone or Armagh. The EU leaders’ stance on Brexit can be best understood through the prism of their own domestic political travails. All are facing nativist threats at home, and all nativists have an element of anti-EU rhetoric in their arsenal.
As a result, Brexit has to be difficult. The UK has to pay and must be taught a lesson as a warning to the rest of Europe’s would-be separatists.
The main force driving nativism on the continent, as during the Brexit referendum, is immigration. Typically, when a society is faced with significant immigration, local political movements emerge to agitate against the newcomers. In fact, one of the first nativist movements sprang up in the US in the 1850s, and the Irish were on the receiving end of it.
In the mid-19th century, mass Irish and German immigration prompted the virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement. In the New York of 1855, 52 per cent of the city’s 622,925 citizens were foreign-born. Of these foreigners, 28 per cent were Irish and 16 per cent were German. In all, from 1847 to 1860, 1.1 million Irish immigrants docked at the port of New York, along with 900,000 Germans. The Know Nothings rapidly won huge support among local Protestant workers.
So anti-immigrant parties are not new, and not unusual. This is what makes contemporary Irish political developments so out of step with the rest of Europe and much of economic history. Despite taking in more immigrants per head than most EU countries, there is precious little anti-immigrant feeling here.
According to a Eurobarometer survey from the EU Commission published this year, Ireland has the most positive attitudes in Europe towards immigration (both from within the EU and outside).
The survey shows that almost two-thirds of Irish people had a positive view of immigration from non-EU countries. This is a technical way of describing the largely non-white population that is the anathema of the far-right in Europe. This result compares with an EU average of 40.7 per cent, ranking Ireland higher than the traditionally tolerant Swedes and Spanish (both at 63 per cent) and considerably higher than the Brexit-era Britons (54 per cent), the Germans (42 per cent), the French (36 per cent) and Italians (30 per cent).
Similarly, when it comes to immigration from other EU members, Ireland is top of the table with 86.6 per cent of people holding a positive view compared with an EU-average of 65.2 per cent.
The data also suggests a “Trump effect”: Irish attitudes towards both forms of immigration (EU and non-EU) have become increasingly favourable since the US president’s campaign and election.
Regarding integration, Ireland ranks the highest in the EU again with 80 per cent of respondents saying that integration is successful in the local area or country, compared to an EU-average of 54 per cent.
What’s more, compared with other European countries, Ireland has high levels of social interaction between immigrants and the native population, 56 per cent of Irish respondents had some sort of daily interaction with immigrants, with a further 26 per cent engaging with them in some way on a weekly basis.
Possibly the reason for these attitudes is that Ireland is receiving one of the highest proportions of qualified immigrants in the entire EU. For example, Eurostat breaks down the origin of immigrant based on a Human Development Indicator ranking. Nearly 17 per cent of immigrants to Ireland come from countries ranked “very high” on this indicator, as opposed to only 3 per cent of immigrants who arrive in Italy and only 6.6 per cent of those who arrive in Germany.
In this respect too, Ireland is an exception. We are more tolerant, accepting and welcoming to migrants than all our neighbours. In a world of mobile capital, labour and ideas, this is a strongly positive development and it sets us apart from the prevailing political mood.
Remaining open to the cosmopolitan world, and availing of the opportunities that globalisation affords, is one of the ways a small country like ours can prosper. It’s nice to see that, in a world of recalcitrant nativists, we have such a strong popular tailwind of tolerance pushing us forward.