Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

In or out?

May 24, 2016

With less than a month to go, I still haven’t made up my mind. One would think it should be simple. I spent five years working in Brussels, after all, and understand something of how the EU works. But the more I think about it the more I just don’t know. Maybe I should tick both boxes.

I think the problem is that we – the British people – are being denied a proper debate about the issues that matter. Which makes me a little mad.

We hear from the Nigel Farage camp that these foreign workers are coming and stealing our jobs. Probably want our women, too.

We hear from the Treasury that we’re going to be £4300 worse off – per year – if we were to leave the EU, with apparently not serious rationale for that number. I can invent numbers, too. Squiggledom. It’s twice a googleplex, so it’s pretty darn big.

So: in or out?

Immediately after my five-year stint in Brussels, I had decidedly made up my mind that we ought to leave this ill-fitting marriage. I firmly believed that the EU needed to be dismantled and rebuilt – and the only way to do that was for us to be out. But now I’m seeing so many more nuances.

Frustratingly, this trip to the UK has so far yielded no useful insights. I’m working in our London office at the moment, and one of my colleagues was handing out “Remain” bumper stickers today. When another colleague told him that he would probably vote to leave, the Remain colleague expressed surprised and said that he thought all financial correspondents would want to stay in Europe the EU.

If only it were that easy.

Here, then, are my meandering thoughts – from someone that really has not yet made up his mind.


– We would be able to adopt our own policy towards immigrants, because to be quite frank the EU’s has so far been an utter disaster. This is not to argue for less immigration – as the dreadful right wing press often do – but just the fact that we would be able to control who comes to our countries, and therefore could make sure this is the right kind of migrant. Jobs are not finite – socialist France flirted with that idea, and to an extent still does, and it’s just blatantly wrong. Just ask Adam Smith. Except he’s dead. But those that come to this country should contribute to its well-being. This also goes for the refugees that we take. I firmly believe that we have a moral obligation to accept a certain amount of refugees fleeing from human rights abuses, but that should be on our terms and we should give them jobs as soon as we can.

– Our government should no longer be able to hide behind the ineptitude of the EU. There are actually things that the British government cannot do because the EU doesn’t allow it. This makes it much harder to hold them to account when they step out of line.

– The masterminds behind the EU project are a dishonest bunch. They were given very good advice that launching the euro currency when it was half-baked would result in a “Greece”. It could have been any one of the peripheral countries – that wasn’t known at the time – but they chose to ignore such advice because it fitted their own narrative. If “Greece” happened then that would be a very good reason to move towards more centralised fiscal control. Which may be a noble end in itself, but I’m not sure I want to place my faith in people that have to lie to get where they are going.

– When I was in Brussels, I lost track of the times I heard the European Commission express in all of sincerity that the EU was the reason that European nations weren’t still at war with one another. No! No! And no! The reason for the longest period of piece that we have had for millennia is globalisation, and the EU is a by-product of that globalisation. Not the other way round.


– Strength in numbers. It’s true that we are a small nation – the sun does now set on our noble Empire. So it’s nice to buddy-up to our European partners from time to time.

– We have more representation in Europe than people often realise. Although there is this huge gulf of democratic unaccountability – in the sense that we haven’t actually voted in most of the people that are making decisions for us – we do have a permanent representation to the EU and they are a pretty active bunch.

– Free movement of labour and free movement of trade – these are concepts I hold dear. I am, after all, a migrant worker. I wouldn’t particularly like it if Hong Kong suddenly chose to shut its door on my kind. And I like to think that I am contributing to their society – through tax and being a damn fine pillar of.

– We’ve pissed our European neighbours off a fair bit recently, by being so obstreperous. How about we now start to make amends?

– However you look at things it’s going to be expensive. Contracts will need to be renegotiated or updated, business deals will need to be done on a different footing, some firms may even decide to relocate. If you’re a lawyer, now is probably the time to cash in.

– What is going to happen if we leave? No one really knows. If we stay, there’s almost certainly going to be a relentless march towards greater federalism. And so perhaps that is what everyone needs. Better the devil you know, eh?

But, whatever the outcome of the referendum of June 23, it probably doesn’t matter as much as people think it does. If we stay, we carry on pretty much as before, with maybe a tiny bit more acceleration towards federalism. If we leave, well, it honestly isn’t going to be the end 0f the world that everyone is predicting. Do people honestly think that, after her initial hissy fit, Europe won’t want to engage with us?

Maybe I’ll just tick both boxes and let fate decide.


Defending colonialism

April 7, 2016

Defending colonialism is a difficult thing to do. But no matter where I travel in the world it seems that people want to extol the virtues of the legacy that we – meaning us noble Europeans – left behind.

As a Brit whose forefathers helped conquer much of the world, any defence of what we might have achieved sounds painfully shrill against the historical memories of all that blood that was spilled.

And yet still people – mainly the natives of these countries that we conquered – are prepared to justify what we did in the name of progress.

We gave these uncivilised barbarians human rights, the rule of law, capitalism, electricity. And on the list goes.

Nowhere does the defence of European colonialism seem more obvious than in Hong Kong.

My Cantonese teacher – a flamboyant fellow with a deep dislike of the mainland Chinese – likes to thank and blame the British, in equal measure, for what they have done for the territory.

He thinks that colonialism was the best thing that could have happened to the country, and helped propel the region forwards from a collection of sleepy fishing hamlets to what you see today. I see skyscrapers and an unhealthy worship of money. But he probably sees more.

But he is also angry with the British – angry for leaving in 1997, and angry for not doing more to keep the territory out of the clutches of Beijing.

“You guys should never have left,” he complained to me over dinner.

Which sparked an intense debate as to the virtues or otherwise of colonialism – with me saying that the so-called “progress” the British heralded in could in no way justify the suppression of the natives (although I am aware that Hong Kong, important mostly as port for trading with China rather than anything grander, had a far less bloody history than other colonial outposts) and him claiming that the rewards future generations would enjoy more than made up for the grim history of colonialism.

But I could not see it like that. For me, colonialism was a self-serving evil that sought only to benefit the colonialists and not the colonised – and we got far more out of it than our colonies ever did.

Our conversation ended as the dessert arrived, with him summising that my views are founded upon some kind of colonial guilt that is forced upon us Europeans from birth. I certainly don’t feel guilty, but he’s probably right in some way: we Europeans do collectively believe that we bear some responsibility for the sorry state that many countries are in, which is why we are so keen to try and put things right (queue a brief discussion about the immigration dilemma Europe). Just as, of course, his background and regional context has shaped his positive view of British presence over here.

It reminded me of a scene out of George Orwell’s Burmese Days.

In this stunningly good book, the main protagonist John Flory, the only member of the colonialist elite that feels in some way embarrassed with what Britain is doing to the country, is forever trying to convince his Indian doctor friend, Veraswami, about the evils of empire. He consistently fails, with Veraswami’s rose-tinted eyes constantly admiring the culture, progress and refinement that Her Majesty’s subjects were bringing the Asian outpost.

I was playing John Florry, my Cantonese teacher the good doctor. Two people from different backgrounds and different cultures whose very different view of the world was coloured by their upbringing.

I am now reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which charts the development of humankind through the ages. Whilst Harari certainly is not an apologist for colonialism, there is a very fine subtext running through the chapters where he talks about imperialism: and that is, despite all the horrific bloodshed and evil-doing, the benefits of colonialism to future generations have always been significant.

It happened with the expansion of the Romans. It happened with the expansion of the Arabs. And it happened with the Europeans, too.

Bath tubs, numbers, human rights. These people all left something valuable behind.

But I still feel squeamish when I hear, a mere half a century after our empire unravelled, people speaking favourably about what we did.

Let them come

November 29, 2013

David Cameron seems to be veering towards dangerous populism that kills any possibility of having a rational debate about the European Union. Suggesting that we are becoming the “nasty country” of Europe, as EU employment commissioner Laszlo Andor did, might be a little harsh; but perhaps the “intellectually disingenuous” country might be closer to the mark.

From the beginning of next year, a wave of Bulgarians and Romanians are certain to wash up on British shores. Someone should probably tell them about the weather in Britain in January. But, that aside, there’s not a whole lot we can do to stop them arriving. And nor should we.

Cameron’s jibe at Tony Blair that he should never have let East Europeans into the country so soon after enlargement – EU countries could have imposed a seven-year transition period for such nationals; only Sweden, Ireland and Britain waived this right – is a cheap populist argument that follows a discredited school of economics. It presupposes that jobs are finite, which they are not.

Take a look at the following graph. Here you can clearly see the British economy outperforming the French one right up until 2008, when of course we paid the price for our deregulated financial market.


Now I wouldn’t be so presumptious as to claim this was entirely due to wondering Poles, but they certainly helped.

Now, Cameron isn’t, as noted, suggesting that Bulgarians and Romanians can’t come. What he is doing is imposing measures to make sure they don’t rip off the British taxpayer.

Fair enough.

But there is also an inherent danger in what he is doing. By appealing to a slightly disagreeable anti-immigrant sentiment that currently courses through the echelons of British society, Cameron, who was schooled at Eton and studied economics at Oxford, risks an over-simplification of the discussion.

Immigration is not bad. It is what has kept our economy afloat for the past decade. It is what made America.

What is bad – and here I will agree with our PM – is those East Europeans that come to the UK simply to get free housing.

But I for one would like to know how many of these Romanians and Bulgarians are planning on coming to the UK simply so they can be out of work in greater comfort than back home. Surely they must know it is cold there.

Cameron needs to move away from straight-forward populism, and be a little more thorough in his treatment of the argument.

A carefully thought-out, mature and sensible immigration policy is what we need.

Some statistics wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Xenophobic Europe

September 15, 2011

I’m sometimes embarrassed to be European. When one looks at the past five hundred years of European colonial-building, it seems very hard to find anything to be proud of. When one looks at the last 50 years, during which time Europe and America have arrogantly presumed that they could turn the world into a better place, it is easy to see how we could have done a great deal better.

This month, three Sudanese friends of ours were supposed to have their holiday in France. Each one of them has good and secure job that is reasonably well-paid. They also have a passion and love of their own country, as well as a deep interest in the cultures of Europe. Some of them have even taken French lessons, for the simple joy of learning a new language and finding out more about the culture. France, continuously frustrated that French missed out on being the world’s number one language, is always keen to communicate its cultural heritage to the rest of the world.

It was almost certain that they would be welcome to France with open arms, perhaps given a medal upon arrival for being so enlightened about Europe’s many different cultures. It was certainly unthinkable that they could possibly be denied a visa.

But that is just what happened.

I was quite shocked, and more than a little saddened that we wouldn’t be able to see them in Europe this year.

I see the countless economic migrants desperately trying to fight their way into Europe – whose door is still ajar but slowly closing – and am absolutely flaboghasted that these upstanding Sudanese, who were about to come to Europe and (gosh!) spend money here (an African spending money in Europe? is that, you know, actually possible?) were denied entry.

Perhaps those people that make these visa decisions might take a moment to cast their eyes over the newspapers of recent days. Greece. Bankrupt. Ireland. Bankrupt. Portugal. Bankrupt. Spain. Not far away from being bankrupt. Italy. May well go bankrupt. France. Would be happily solvent if it wasn’t having to send all its revenue from taxpayers to Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain and Italy.

In short, the coffers of the French treasury would certainly be glad of a few young free-spenders in the country.

For me, this whole ridiculous situation is immensely frustrating, as I had been looking forwards to seeing my friends here. For my friends, it must be even more frustrating as they had already bought their flight ticket to Paris.

But this blog entry has a deeper message beyond my own personal grievances. Europe is in terminal decline. It seems that nothing politicians do can really arrest this decline. China and India are leaping ahead. The US may have a ridiculously large debt, and been on the verge of default a couple of months ago, but structurally it is in much better shape than most European economies. Even parts of Africa are showing signs of real development, and one day in the not-too-distant future may really be able to demonstrate their weight in the world.

And, meanwhile, Europe trundles on, seemingly completely oblivious of how its place in the world has shifted – and unless it recalibrates its trajectory, it’s heading for that precipis everyone once thought China and India were destined for.

What we need to do is to put a proper immigration and visa policy in place, devoid of the ludicrous sentiments that Europe’s right-wing press seems so full of. Allowing people to move about the world, in controlled fashion, is important. As tourists, my friends would have spent hard cash in France. Others, who want to come to Europe to work, could bring skills and dedication that would give a real boost to the economy. But all we ever seem to hear is the right-wing newspapers weaving frightful tales of how we’ll all be destitute if we let these foreigners in to steel our jobs. That anyone can write such simplified rubbish in a serious paper – when the idea that employment is a finite quantity was disapproven decades ago – is baffling.

What we need in Europe is a clear, comprehensive and unambiguous immigration policy. One that sifts the wheat from the chaff, keeping out those visitors that are likely to cause trouble or migrant workers that have no skills that they can usefully offer, and allowing in those people that might actually bring some benefit.

For what we have at the moment is a completely arbitrary process, where fraudulent asylum seekers from Tunisia can slip through the net by claiming that they are Libyan, whilst some hard-working people from Sudan are denied the holiday in France that they had been planning for months.

They’ll probably go to India instead. Where they are appreciated.

Never closer to Libya

April 13, 2011

As we cruised through the cloudless Sicilian night, heading for Birgi airport in western Sicily, we heard above us the distant drone of military aircraft taking off. F-15 or F-16 fighter jets, perhaps, but I couldn’t really tell you. They might have been bound for Libya or simply engaging in midnight military exercises. Again, I’m afraid that I couldn’t say for certain.

For the past five days, I had been soaking up the glorious Sicilian sunshine and gorging myself on fabulous Sicilian cuisine. This was for some much needed rest and relaxation – and I was determined to do both to the maximum extent possible. These days, I find it so hard to holiday purely for the sake of holidaying. Even when I was in Thailand, I got drawn into researching a story. Here, I managed to steer clear of work altogether.

Even so, Libya had never felt so close.

Only a few weeks before we were due to fly to Sicily, the Italian civil aviation authority announced that Birgi airport (which serves the city of Trapani) was to be closed. Usually, military planes use only one half of the airport, but, due to the ongoing bombing raids in Libya, it was felt that some extra space was needed.

This was set to be a huge inconvenience, as Ryanair flights would be directed to Palermo, a good few hours away by train.

Fortunately, just before our flight was scheduled to depart, a massive outcry by local businesses forced the airport to reopen. The construction of Birgi airport five years ago, and the regular flights of low-cost carriers, has really helped boost the tourism industry of western Sicily.

We stayed with a traditional Sicilian family, who had this intriguing though slightly objectionable habit of turning the television on whenever we were about to eat. Although this was great for my Italian, it was not exactly in line with how I had been brought up.

During breakfast, and throughout the evening, we would alternate between light family banter and intermittent distractions from the TV. This was a particular annoyance for me. Not only was I in the prime position to see everything that was shown on the TV, but I was perhaps more susceptible to the scantily-clad and sexually provocative women that would prance across the screen from time to time. As the evening wore on, they seemed to be wearing noticeably less clothes, which made focusing on the Italian all the harder.

Morning television was the most rewarding, and we would sit through a good hour of news, whilst our hosts opined about one issue or another. It was here that I learnt something of what is important to ordinary Italians at the moment.

And of course towards the top of the list came: immigration.

Lampedusa is a small Italian island that lies south of Sicily, closer to Tunisia than to Italy. It is therefore where a great many immigrants from northern Africa end up as they seek passage to mainland Europe – usually aiming, as a final destination, for France, the UK or Belgium.

This has been an ongoing problem in Lampedusa for years, but it was inevitable that the war in Libya would turn this trickle into a flood (although it is worth pointing out that some commentators claim that as many as 90% of immigrants still come from Tunisia and not Libya, and that many of these refugees use the Libyan war as an “excuse” to justify their arrival).

The enduring memory of the footage that I saw aired on Italian TV was of a young Arabic lad, snappily dressed and with immaculately coiffured hair, being escorted by two Italian police officers. As he passed the television camera, he turned, raised one hand slightly and said with a hint of arrogant confidence “libertà“. Freedom.

Of course, Italian journalists, mindful of the anti-immigration sentiment currently coursing through Italy, used this brief clip to put the perfect spin on all the news reports. Why is Italy even entertaining the notion that these people could be here to stay when, quite clearly, they had no real reason to leave their country in the first place?

The whole debate wasn’t helped by the usual faux-pas from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who promised them that they could have Italian residence, which would then allow them to travel freely within the Schengen area.

Of course, such a promise is not Berlusconi’s to make, since it requires the unanimous agreement of all Schengen partners.

A furore erupted in the kitchen – our hosts were thankfully not Berlusconi lovers – and there were great cries of “schifo! schifo!” (which I later learnt is an expression of disgust for something that is said).

Once it became apparent that Berlusconi’s promise would not be (could not be) honoured, a number of refugees on the island of Lampedusa threatened to go on hunger strike until their demands for asylum were met.

This prompted an angry discussion among the dinner table, where the consensus seemed to be “if they want to starve, let them starve”.

Another proposal was to repatriate all official residents of Lampedusa to an area of Sicily, presumably one that is not used at the moment, with a generous compensation package, and then blow up the island (Lampedusa that is, not Sicily).

All over Europe, similar debates are taking place, in one form or another, and it is easy for a libertarian such as myself to try and seize the moral high ground by arguing that the issue is far more nuanced than Europe’s right wing press would have you believe.

But over the past few days, I have done a great deal of reflection over the issue – the Sicilian countryside is great for bringing out the inner zen – and have come to the following conclusion: there is a huge problem with libertarianism in trying to resolve Europe’s immigration problem.

When Violetta and I decided to go and live in Sudan for a few years, we did so because of the wonderful opportunity to find out more about the culture there – and about Islam. We were paid a shockingly poor salary, given the high living costs, and I would certainly have been much better off financially staying with my job in London. But I don’t for a moment regret the time that we spent there. We had a great time and we learnt a huge amount about that area of the world. We came away a great deal wiser.

But, whilst I was there, I hardly ever met a Sudanese person that was interested in coming to Europe to find out about European culture. Many people that I met wanted to come to Europe, usually England, but couldn’t really tell me the first thing about the country. Only that it oozed money and opportunity (here I must point out that I am talking about those individuals that are from a Sudanese, rather than international, background). Even worse, with one very notable exception (and I really hope that one day he gets the chance to go to England), they didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to understand the rules of cricket, or what it is like to sit in the middle of the Cornish countryside and enjoy lashings of clotted cream on your freshly-baked scones, or whether there is anything that the Scots cannot dip in batter and deep fry.

They just didn’t want to know.

All they wanted to know was how much they could earn when they got there.

And that is why Europe’s gates have to remain closed. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t help those in need. We should. Dammit, we have a duty to help those countless destitute people seeking to escape tyranny in their poorly-run countries. Especially if we’re going to bomb the bejesus out of a place.

But we must distinguish between those genuinely needy folk – many of whom never actually make it to Europe – and those people who just want to come here and earn a quick buck.

The sad thing is that the actions of the many are ruining the opportunities for the few who may actually be interested in gaining more than just financial rewards from their trip to Europe. We desperately need a single, homogeneous immigration policy.

To taint this entry with a little humour, perhaps I might venture a suggestion. Perhaps one benchmark about whether to allow immigrants is whether a market for guidebooks exists in the home country. If guidebooks for England or France or Belgium are selling like hot cakes in their home country, then let them come, for we will have known that they have transcended that crucial barrier and discovered that they can find more in Europe than their fortune. Just as Dick Whittington, a 15th Century mayor of London, found when he came to the capital that the streets aren’t really paved with gold.