Brexit: the UK, Sovereignty and Immigration

By Matthew Mennell, Class of 2017.

By Matthew Mennell, Class of 2017.

On June 23, Britain, the ginger stepchild of Europe, will decide whether to emancipate itself from the rest of the European Union (EU) family in what has become known as the “Brexit” referendum.  On the pro-Brexit side is the mayor of London, Boris Johnston, whose policy on cake is “pro having it and pro eating it". He would like Britain to enjoy all the benefits of free trade while reestablishing sovereignty of parliament and control of immigration.  On the other side, David Cameron and the leaders of the mainstream political parties are in favor of staying in the EU.  First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon, has even suggested that a result in favor of a Brexit will spark a second independence vote for Scotland.

The stakes are high. Either outcome will impact Britain’s relationship with both its European neighbors and other major trading partners.  I personally find it difficult to believe that Britain – the world’s fifth largest economy, predicted to overtake Germany and Japan in the next 20 years – would be unable to negotiate favorable terms of trade with the rest of the world.  I assume that any new deals will look very similar to existing EU trade deals. Moreover, like Norway and Switzerland, Britain will continue to contribute to the EU budget and be bound by EU legislation to gain access to European markets.  To me, the EU debate is fundamentally about the issue of immigration; this is what concerns the average Briton and will swing the vote either way.

Free movement of labor is key to operating an effective free trade area like the EU.  It enables the labor supply to adjust dynamically across Europe, and be allocated where specific human capital is required to boost production. This helps to achieve the objectives of the common market, to make efficient gains from comparative advantage. Furthermore, free movement of labor helps to improve the living standards of the individual and reduces social pressures in Europe’s poorest regions.  

For example, London has benefited significantly from the influx of young migrants from Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment figures lie either side of 50%.  The capital has gained a pool of labor to fill jobs that few locals would be willing to undertake, while the migrants have gained valuable experience and improved their English language skills, making them more employable wherever they next choose to work.  

Boris Johnson (left) and David Cameron (right) representing the two sides of the debate. Courtesy of AFP

Boris Johnson (left) and David Cameron (right) representing the two sides of the debate.
Courtesy of AFP

So why is it that people are anti-immigration? My feeling is that pro-Brexit sentiment is akin to protectionism.  I am reminded of the open to letter to French parliament by economist, Frédéric Bastiat, who satirically puts forward the case to ban sunlight, for it is “flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price”. Bastiat goes on to make reference to “that haughty island” (Britain) not being burdened by the power of sunlight as much as France, an ironic metaphor for feelings toward immigration in Britain versus the rest of Europe.  Satire aside, the reluctance of the few to adapt to market conditions can significantly limit the benefits of free trade and immigration to society as a whole.  Anti-immigration policy is a negative-sums game where no “infant industry” arguments can be credibly advanced.

As a first generation immigrant to Britain, and someone who is exercising my free movement of labor this summer (I plan to intern in Amsterdam), I would encourage my fellow Boothies to work overseas and embrace other cultures. Immigration is an opportunity not a threat; it creates diversity, improves adaptability, and enhances competitiveness.  I shall be voting to remain in the EU this June.

Matt is a first year who will be representing the United Kingdom in the Eurovision song contest this year.