Migration, Borders, Territory – a commentary on the EU referendum

A few weeks ago I was asked by the Architectural Association to write a commentary on the UK’s EU referendum. The request was for a short piece on how the vote might impact on territory. It was written in late May. The piece is published in their newsletter, but it’s not yet online and with the referendum only two days away I’m sharing the text here.

Update: the piece as published is finally online here.

Migration, Borders, Territory

I have been dismayed by most of the discussion of the EU referendum. While I believe there is a progressive case to be made against the EU, challenging its politics in a range of aspects from economics to migration and security, I don’t see that argument being made well.  It’s hard to imagine that leaving the EU would lead to more progressive politics within the UK – it would surely hand more power to the Right, with its dislike of the environmental and social protections that EU membership provides. I see the nationalistic elements of the leave campaign as deeply reactionary, and out of place in a globalised world and a multicultural society. Aside from endlessly debated and frequently inaccurate arguments about cost and economic benefit, the issue in the referendum that has got the most attention is of course migration.

There have been grotesque and racist arguments made. This is both in the attitude to migration to the UK from within the EU, and outside it. Vote Leave’s website lists countries that have joined the EU in recent years, which are of course central or Eastern European, while then raising the prospect of others which are being considered, either Turkey or from the Balkans. “When they join, they will have same rights as other member states”. Readers are presumably being encouraged to question the wisdom of this, but the connotation is clear. ‘They’, and those that joined recently, are not sufficiently like us. UK citizens who have chosen to live, work or retire in other EU countries are rarely mentioned, even though they are often poorly integrated into local communities. In addition, we frequently hear the suggestion that the UK could prevent migration from outside the EU much more easily if it wasn’t bound by its rules.

This last claim is nonsense. The UK is not part of the Schengen agreement, and does have control over its borders. Indeed, the EU provides additional protections – a kind of double-boundary from the Schengen area’s external borders by Frontex, and individual member states’ border agencies. The UK has an active role in such processes, from policy to intelligence sharing to collective work. Some would argue these borders should be much more open and the process of crossing them much easier. There is a certainly a moral case to be made for why the UK should be doing far more in welcoming and supporting refugees. This would be grounded on its colonial past as well as the colonial present – from the UK’s role in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, to its ex-colonies in the African continent, to refugees from Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere who are often in that situation because of UK military or foreign policy. But to suggest the current situation is out of the UK’s control because of EU membership is just not accurate.

People tend to forget why the European Economic Community, which became the European Community and then the EU, was set up in the first place. The original binding together of coal and steel, especially between France and Germany, was both politically important and military structured. It was to try to ensure those two countries could never wage war against each other again. Other aspects grew from that beginning. We tend to forget the recent history of Europe and what has been achieved. A break-up of the European Union might seem unlikely to descend into another war like the ones fought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but smaller scale conflicts between existing EU members over disputed territories are much more possible.

The UK’s territory would barely change as a result of leaving the EU, unless Scotland went independent. It would be most noticeable in Northern Ireland with its land border with the Republic of Ireland. Processing of border controls in Dover rather than Calais might be a result of an unravelling of bi-lateral agreements with France. But many of the UK’s responsibilities are dependent on wider supra-national bodies – the United Nations and various conventions on refugees. Whether you agree or not with tighter borders and control of migration from outside the EU, the biggest change in this area might well be that the EU could no longer be blamed.

I will be voting to remain, and then hoping once this issue is put to rest, political action can be taken to try to reform and improve the EU.

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