It has been a hard week for those of us who believe in closer global integration. The US Supreme Court deadlocked on immigration reform, meaning four million people will remain in legal limbo, fearing deportation and the split-up of their families. And the leader of the UK Leave coalition crowed that Britain was exiting Europe without a shot being fired only days after Jo Cox, a campaigner for remain and the rights of the dispossessed worldwide, had been gunned down in cold blood.
It could get worse: the most significant legacy of the UK Independence Party may be the breakup of the UK itself, as Scottish parties demand the right to vote on remaining in Europe by leaving Britain. Felix Salmon outlines the dominoes that could fall in the rest of Europe, potentially unwinding the whole enterprise. He also suggests it may be a portent for November’s election in the United States.
He may be right if we don’t learn the lesson of this referendum –that the rise of nativism isn’t about the rise of immigration, it is about the rise of fear. For all the Brexit vote turned into a question of “how much do you hate Johnny Foreigner,” the places with the most migrants opted overwhelmingly to remain. That’s not a one-off: in the US, the relationship between migrant share of the population and anti-migrant feeling is weak. And in Austria, the far right vote share actually declined in places where more migrants were sent. Joel Fetzer has shown that across countries recessions and depressions increase nativism, while levels and changes in overall migrant populations do not.
Many people in the UK and US are worried, not least by the idea that the good jobs have gone and aren’t coming back. That fear, especially when harnessed by politicians willing to spout opinions they would have condemned only a few years before, is a powerful force for xenophobia. The UK Remain camp’s attempt to stoke even more fear --about the consequences of exit-- may have been positively counter-productive in that environment. Scared people vote nativist.
Of course it is hard for a group of people who have spent much of the last twenty years celebrating EU opt-outs and ridiculing Brussels bureaucrats to make a strong positive case for Europe. But they might have tried –or perhaps better, they might have shut up and let others lead the campaign. And for those of us who believe in the goal of ever closer ties between nations, the events of the last few days should be a call to the fight. If we want to reverse the unraveling in Europe and the US, we have to lay out a vision of integration alongside the domestic policies required to ensure it is a force for shared prosperity, peace and wellbeing. For all the bad news, today is still a day to spread hope, not fear.