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In an article for Politico Open Europe's Raoul Ruparel examines whether the issues of immigration and aslyum will actually play as large a role in the Out campaign as is commonly assumed.
The Calais crisis has dominated headlines in the U.K. this summer and a number of politicians and commentators have been quick to point the finger of blame at the EU. They rightly raise the question of whether this will play into the EU referendum that looks increasingly likely to happen in a year or so.
While some in Britain have already decided how they will vote, there is a substantial body of swing voters who will ultimately determine the outcome of the referendum. The most important factor in determining how these people will vote will be the substance of Prime Minister David Cameron’s EU reform push. That is why it must be as broad and comprehensive as possible. But there is no doubt that the campaigns will also play a big role. So could the Calais crisis boost the “Out” camp?
Clearly, the crisis at Calais once again depicts Europe as a continent in crisis and the EU as an organization incapable of solving problems. Many people have rightly asked: If the EU is not there to deal with these kinds of pan-European challenges then what is it there for? The combination of the situation in Calais, the wide economic malaise and high unemployment rate across the eurozone, the broader crisis across the Mediterranean and the frozen conflict in Ukraine presents an image of an outdated, out-of-touch European Union, inflexible and unable to respond to the huge problems on its doorstep.
It is easy to see why this could be a boon to the Out camp.
That said, it should be noted that the Out campaign is unlikely to want to make immigration and particularly asylum a centerpiece of its campaign for a number of reasons. Firstly, the campaign would risk taking on a protectionist and possibly even xenophobic tone. This is unlikely to appeal to the large swathe of swing voters, and would therefore probably be a bad approach to trying to win the referendum.
Secondly, and relatedly, focusing on immigration would play into the hands of UKIP and give the party an opportunity for greater involvement in the Out campaign. Given that many in the campaign are committed Conservatives and/or want it to be a cross-party campaign (again to appeal to as many voters as possible), they will be loath to let it become a tool for UKIP to boost their own profile.
Thirdly, it is also important to note that UKIP has been making these same arguments for years and, while they have fared pretty well in terms of broad vote share, the tactic has not delivered any real electoral success. More importantly, it has not shifted the national vote towards favoring the “Out” solution. This has been termed the “Farage paradox” — while support for him and his party has risen, support for UKIP’s main policy position of leaving the EU has not. The “Out” camp will not want to fall victim to the same phenomenon, even if no one can quite explain what’s behind it.
Fourthly, the immigration issue also risks undermining one of the Out campaign’s key messages: opening up to the rest of the world. Many people in favor of leaving the EU, rightly or wrongly, see it as a way to re-orientate the U.K. economy towards faster growing parts of the world and away from a declining eurozone. Focusing on immigration will raise the prospect of closed borders and more protectionism, precisely the opposite of the open, free trading nation that the Out camp will likely want to present, and which many of its supporters want to see.
Furthermore, it is clear that control over immigration also depends on the exact relationship that the U.K. wants to establish with the EU post-Brexit. If the U.K. is looking for a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement it will likely still have to make a commitment to free movement, as Norway and Switzerland have done. If the U.K. seeks to fall back on WTO rules, it is likely to suffer a larger permanent economic loss, possibly up to 2.2 percent of GDP according to an Open Europe Brexit report. In leaving the EU, it will be hard to combine complete control of immigration and a benign economic scenario. The Out camp will want to avoid falling into this trap.
We’ve addressed this on the Open Europe blog, and it’s far from clear that it would. The drivers of this migration — war, political instability and wildly different economic opportunities — would undoubtedly still exist, and their impact may become more significant if you believe the U.K. will hugely prosper outside the EU. Of course, leaving the EU would give the U.K. the option of returning refugees or asylum seekers to their point of origin (it would be in breach of the UN Convention on Refugees and very bad for their image but not legally punishable).
Practically, though, this might not be as easy as it sounds. Migrants would still amass at Calais because the rest of the EU would have kept the same approach to free movement. Migrants may even move to Kent if France decides to repeal the 2003 Le Touquet Treaty (which moved the U.K. border from Kent to Calais) if the U.K. leaves the EU. In any case, the U.K. would still need to deal with the arrival of migrants and would then face the choice of shipping them back to France or other EU countries.
This is not a realistic proposition, and would quickly sour the U.K.’s relationship with the rest of Europe, exacerbating the effect of its exit from the EU.
The other option would be for the U.K. to patrol the Mediterranean alone, and ensure that no migrants reach British shores, at enormous cost. Fundamentally, there is a case to be made for the EU changing its approach to this crisis and possibly adopting an Australian-style policy (intercepting all illegal arrivals via sea and returning them to their point of origin), but this needs to be done by the EU as a whole. It is not a policy that the U.K. can enact alone. As such, in practical terms, a Brexit is unlikely to provide any better solution to these problems.
Overall, it is certainly possible that the Calais crisis and related issues will play into the EU referendum and, since they portray the EU in a poor light, increase the risk of a Brexit. But this risk should not be overdramatized: There are still numerous reasons why the Out camp may not want to make migration the central theme of their campaign. Not least because the arguments struggle to add up in terms of sound policy, but more importantly, because the issue stands to alienate some of the core free trading support the campaign relies on. Anti-migration rhetoric would likely fail to attract, and even put off, the large group of swing voters the Out campaign needs to convince if they want to stand any chance of winning.
This article was originally published on Politico Europe.