Britain isn't the only EU state in a mess

This article is more than 12 months old

Most Western countries are facing the same issues that pushed Brexit through

Britain's intention to leave the European Union (EU) - Brexit - will greatly affect the rest of the world.

It is not confined to the effect it will have on the British economy, even if that is likely to be major, nor on the adjustments the remaining 27 EU states must make.

There is more than a little suspicion in the United Kingdom that the continental elites are enjoying the mess the Brits are in as they struggle to get a grip on the complexities of separating trade, legal system, financial and political commitments built up over 44 years.

When a friendly country, especially one perceived as arrogant - a widespread view of the British establishment - enters a time of trouble, something inside its close allies quietly rejoices. We compete, after all, not just in trade and growth, but in our national self-images.

But most Western countries now face, in differing degrees of intensity, the same issues that impelled a narrow majority to vote for Brexit last year.

These are closely tied together: immigration, fear of terrorism, the sovereignty of national parliaments, embattled ethnic identity and lack of community cohesion.

They were summed up by the pro-Brexit camp as "Taking back control!" That concept does not stop at the English Channel.

Expect, in the next year, more pressure on the EU and national administrations fuelled by the same discontent that motivated Brexit.

And in democracies, sooner or later, such discontent must take political forms.

Popular attitudes throughout Europe now appear to be increasingly out of kilter with those of the political and corporate leaderships.

A study of 10,000 Europeans across 10 EU states, published by foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, showed that an average of 55 per cent of those polled agreed with US President Donald Trump's efforts to ban citizens from several Muslim-majority states from entering the US.

Another large study from the same source, published last month, showed that "there is simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states and feel anxious over the effects of immigration. Only 34 per cent of the public feel they have benefited from the EU, compared with 71 per cent of the elite."

Germany and Sweden have taken in large numbers of migrants, many of them desperate and poor.


Sweden, the self-declared "humanitarian superpower," which took the highest percentage of migrants relative to its population, now faces a backlash, especially since an Uzbek asylum-seeker drove a van into a crowd, killing five, in Stockholm in April.

The majority of Swedes now call for reduced migrant numbers - the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats remain the country's second most popular party, and the police have been directed to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In Germany, numbers have been cut back sharply since nearly a million migrants were allowed entry last year, but attacks - often by far-right groups - on migrant hostels and homes were running at nearly 10 per day.

In Italy - where most migrants survive the dangerous crossing from ports in North Africa (half a million in the last four years, with 13,000 lost at sea) - opposition to immigration is growing steadily, with the non-governmental organisations that now rescue a third of those trying to cross to Europe blamed for encouraging the migration.

A poll at the end of last year showed Italy to be the most anti-immigrant country in Europe, with 52 per cent of Italians agreeing with the statement that "there are so many foreigners living here that it does not feel like home anymore."

Speakers at a London conference organised by the Henry Jackson Society last week noted that native populations can accept migrants without much conflict - but not if they arrive in sudden waves, not if they remain apart from the host citizens and not if they are also of a different ethnic group.

It is unlikely that this identification - of strong community bonds, sovereign politics ("Taking back control!") and immigration - is much different in the United Kingdom from elsewhere in the Western world.

For the governing and other elites, the conclusion of the experts at the London conference was to cease to see all opponents to mass immigration and loss of national sovereignty as reactionaries and to manage the issues at the pace people can bear.

These leaders should not see voter opposition to mass immigration and their support for national sovereignty as permanent, racially-based ill will.

If most of our fellow citizens are of that mind, then we really are in trouble.

The writer co-founded the 
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.

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