The fiasco off Britain’s post-Brexit passport highlights the confusion of a country that wants Europe but not Europeans. As Britain engages in a messy and acrimonious separation from the European Union, two of the three companies shortlisted to produce the new passports are French and German. People think it ironical that the solitary British company in the shortlist should be called De La Rue.
Referring to this, Andrew Rosindell, a ruling Conservative party MP, declared, “I want to see the new British passport manufactured in Britain in a British factory employing British people because if it is not, it rather defeats the objective of upholding British identity.” But “British” can be misleading. Rosindell’s patriotic outburst reminded me of a suit I bought in London several years ago at a time when Chinese goods were beginning to flood Western markets. I chose it because the label said “Made in Britain”. An English friend was scornful. “That only means it was stitched by Bangladeshi women in some East End sweatshop!” he said.
As Britain’s divorce proceedings with the EU grind on unpleasantly, it would seem that many Britons would prefer even Bangladeshis to citizens of the 27 EU nations. Even Tony Blair, the former prime minister, who is held responsible for opening the doors to EU migrants, is now singing a different tune. Of course, it’s possible he is only trying to ensure he isn’t forgotten as former prime ministers often tend to be. But Blair has gone out of his way recently to defend curbs on immigration from the EU, suggesting that immigrants should be required to register on arrival, and that benefits from or access to Britain’s National Health Service should be restricted to certain categories. The former Labour party leader also wants an “emergency brake” on EU migration in certain sectors.
Blair has been accused of dishonesty and duplicity in proposing these measures which directly contradict the steps he took in 2004 to open the doors to people from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. He pleads that “the times were different” 13-years-ago when British concerns about the effects of an influx of foreigners could be dealt with through domestic legislation. Now, London must acquiesce in many matters to decisions of the EU secretariat in Brussels and the European parliament in Strasbourg. As Blair has pointed out, an EU directive that France specifically supported bars the undercutting of wages and local bargaining from EU migration.
The consequent and perceived diminution of national sovereignty is a sore point with many Britons. They resent a uniform European time, they refuse to subscribe to a common currency (the euro) and the common system of border control represented by the Schengen visa. Some can even be heard grumbling about a uniform railway system that obliged British trains to drop third class compartments. The EU is accused of interference in negotiations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland on a “soft” border between the Republic and British-held Northern Ireland.
So, Blair was tuning in to the popular mood at a time when record numbers of EU citizens are being deported from Britain. Official statistics show that 4,754 were sent back in 2016 against only 973 in the year that David Cameron came to power as Tory prime minister. Enforced removals of EU citizens were up by 26 per cent in the first three months of 2017 compared with the same period last year, while deportations in the past 12 months rose nearly fivefold since 2010.
Not everyone has welcomed the exodus. Lord Blunkett, the blind Labour peer who held office under Blair and is now chairman of the Heathrow airport skills task force, has already warned of the danger of a sharp shortage of skilled labour. He wants a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport, and four “hubs” across the country to train a work force of 180,000 with possibly 10,000 apprentices. The shortage of trained labour is especially marked in engineering. He also fears that if the government closes the door on EU migrants, work on infrastructure schemes might be exported abroad and then have to be imported back into the country. “That would be a very sad situation where we have blocked inward migration but we have effectively migrated business out of the country.”
The proposed parting of the ways has already begun to hurt. Wages have fallen, economic growth is weaker, and the UK’s reliance on the EU for trade has actually increased since the decision to go it alone. “Our test for a successful Brexit is whether working people are better off” says the Trades Union Congress general secretary, Frances O’Grady. “The government must protect jobs, and deliver stronger growth that reaches workers’ pockets through higher pay. We have to deal with low productivity and weak public investment.”
The general feeling is that Cameron and his successor, Theresa May, rushed into Brexit without weighing the economic consequences and making adequate preparations. Ms O’Grady accuses the prime minister of a “criminal” lack of preparation as the clock ticks away towards what she calls a “kamikaze” (Japanese suicide pilots during World War Two) Brexit. There’s some truth in the charge but Ms May is hardly to blame. The referendum on whether or not to leave the EU was held by her predecessor, and by all accounts he did not for a moment imagine the vote would turn out as it. Ms May also supported remaining in the EU, but being a politician, grabbed the chance of becoming prime minister when Mr Cameron quit.
For now, she seems to have avoided both a rebellion in her own ranks and an effective assault by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. But although the government secured a victory of 326 to 290 in this week’s vote on the EU withdrawal Bill, Conservative MPs have warned the prime minister their support was not unconditional. In fact, one of the reasons she won was that seven Labour MPs defied Corbyn to support the Bill, giving Ms May an effective “Brexit majority” of 36. No sooner was the vote over, however, than her own party men warned the prime minister she would have to introduce changes. Ms May called it a “historic decision to back the will of the British people” and said the vote would give clarity and certainty through the Brexit process. But the battle for an effective separation from which the British people can expect some gains has only just begun.
It’s a battle that must be fought on two fronts – home and in Brussels – and it is by no means certain that Teresa May will still be Britain’s prime minister by the time it is over.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist