For many of those voting for Brexit, it was the promise of national sovereignty that tipped the balance. Power was going to be taken back by restoring control over the nature and composition of that nation, by controlling who is allowed to enter the country.
This popular approach is often thought of as being “tough on immigration” but too little thought has been given to being “tough on integration,” where the goal is cohesive communities and a more open, confident sense of identity.
It is easier to stir fears of “the other” than it is to work out how integration policies can be used to promote community cohesion and a shared, forward-looking identity. Instead, reducing the number of people who can enter the country is presented as the be-all and end-all on how to protect a sense of belonging and community.
It’s worth remembering that nationalism is rooted in a democratic yet exclusive ideal. The ultimate source of sovereignty is “the people” who, overcoming social and economic divides, took control over their collective existence. By being part of a nation, even those disenfranchised from politics can feel empowered. They are part of the sovereign simply by being British.
Popular sovereignty is at the core of liberal democracy, but is not enough to instill a sense of partnership in the democratic process. For that, some form of shared political identity is necessary. What this identity entails, and what sort of control of its nature members of “the people” shall have, matters hugely for how immigration is perceived.
The populist narrative that seems to won the day on June 23 was based on a narrowly defined, ethnic and cultural national identity. Populist nationalism privileges “the people,” but not necessarily all citizens, for the definition of “the people” is a pure, pre-political entity opposed to the corrupt elite and culturally diluted population. Controlling immigration is an essential part of controlling the nature of “the people” and preserving a narrowly defined national identity.
Much of the war-like rhetoric of the Leave campaign spoke to a nation – a people – under attack, one that was being invaded by immigrants. The victory chants of having “taken our country back” handed this sense of empowerment to people otherwise divided by deep social and economic inequalities. The problem with this kind of nationalist empowerment is that it is based on exclusive ideas of who “the people” are.
Yet notions of identity, belonging and community ought not to be kidnapped by the populist right. A sense of belonging to a community, whatever that community is, is perhaps a fundamental feature of what it means to be human.
The racist backlash being witnessed in Britain after the referendum is evidence of these sentiments. The verbal assaults on immigrants and ethnic minorities who are being told to “go back home now” is the growl of an exclusively defined nation that has “taken back control.” Power to the people – not to citizens or residents – but to an ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation.
This form of empowerment is both exclusive and futile. Those grabbing for the nation in an attempt to escape the powerlessness of their own lives in the face of austerity are doing themselves a disfavor. It is not immigration that has caused the great economic divide in Britain, anymore than it is in the rest of the E.U. Politicians claiming to listen to what they say are the concerns of voters, consistently fail to actually reduce immigration or to address the social and economic insecurities that the nation so often becomes a substitute for.
Rather than being tough on immigration, we can be tough on integration and thereby deliver a sense of control to communities that is not measured purely in terms of net migration. Such belonging can be based on a range of common denominators, none of which need to be of the exclusive kind that is promoted by populist nationalists around Europe, nor the one that seems to be taking hold in Britain after Brexit.
Taking identity, belonging and community seriously requires engaging in a re-imagination process of the shared identity that connects the demos to political institutions. The aim of this process should be to provide for the urge to belong and to feel in control of that belonging without constructing hostility towards immigration.
Two things are essential for this. First, the shared identity must be to some extent thinner and more forward-looking than the current narrative. Secondly, we need to move away from the idea that controlling the composition of the nation is an essential part of national self-determination.
For too long, debates about identity have focused on ethnic and national minorities, neglecting notions of being British, and even demonizing the English, which are the majority identities. The re-imagining process of a shared identity that can serve as an empowering but inclusive vehicle for democratic engagement must also be forward-looking and embrace the fact of diversity.
The recent German approach to immigration has combined a relative openness towards refugees with tougher integration policies, such as increased mandatory integration courses and an emphasis on language skills for permanent residency. It remains to be seen how successful this will be in terms of public opinion but it is a pathway that focuses on retaining control over identity and community while keeping borders relatively open.
In my own country of birth, Sweden, we have gone from having probably the most generous asylum system in Europe to introducing some of the most restrictive policies towards refugees in less than one year. In 2014, the ministry for integration was closed down by the new government. There had been a reluctance among mainstream parties to talk about integration, as this was seen as playing into the hands of right-wing populists.
Attempts by the Liberal Party in 2002 to discuss integration and the Swedish-language skills of new arrivals were heavily criticized (including by myself). Integration would be dealt with through social and economic policies alone. When this failed, closure was the only option left in order to control the impact of migration.
It may not be possible in the face of public opinion to have a laissez-faire attitude to borders as well as integration. But there’s no reason why borders rather than integration should be the main focus.
There are myriad ways in which “the people” can be imagined and empowered. Focusing overwhelmingly on controlling the number of immigrants who enter a country is downright odd. A sense of belonging in local communities has been eroded by social structures that were changing regardless of immigration. To strengthen this kind of belonging and community we need to be much more innovative than simply staring at net migration figures.
The views expressed in this article belong to its authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.