EU migrant workers and the Brexit left

Lexiters are today complicit in one of the UK’s biggest political betrayals in recent history, that of EU migrant workers. Español

Fernando Sdrigotti
28 June 2016

UK Immigration Service official checking vehicles moving through passport control at the ferry terminal in Calais, France. Gareth Fuller / PA Wire/Press Association Images.

“If there is a single deportation there’ll be riots of Poll Tax proportions,” he tells me, betraying a certain nostalgia. On his profile picture he is holding a copy of the Socialist Worker and on his bio he proudly tells us of his membership to one of the UK’s largest unions. He speaks to me about solidarity with Greek workers and those who die in the Mediterranean trying to make it into Fortress Europe. He is a perfect example of so-called Lexit, the many on the left who have decided to support a move outside the EU, an organisation they rightly identity as a neoliberal monster with racist immigration laws. He means good, like all Lexiters. And yet, with their integrity and all, I would say Lexiters are today complicit in one of the UK’s biggest political betrayals in recent history, that of EU migrant workers.

Scan articles written by any left-leaning Brexit supporter and you will find no mention of the millions whose lives and residency rights have currently been thrown out of balance in the UK (or the million British workers currently in the same situation in Europe, for that matter). EU migrants aren’t a preoccupation for the Suzanne Moores or Giles Frasers. And when they turn up in more hardcore leftist pages they do in contraposition to the plight of an abstract assemblage composed of distant Greek workers and faraway refugees. It seems Lexitist strategy to solve the refugee crisis entails an “either or” approach, in which we should all drown together until we force our governments find a way to revert a humanitarian crisis they greatly contributed to create. It is hard to see how taking a step back from the centre of decision making in Europe can contribute to stopping the death of people or the plight of Greek workers.

If they had chosen to listen to their European neighbours at home they might have found out that a vast majority of EU migrants in the UK have come here in search of a better future, escaping crises of a milder nature that anything going on in the global south, but still with the potential to destroy lives. They would have been able to gauge the human cost of their ideological purity, how leaving the EU has left in limbo not only a couple of yuppies making shovelfuls of cash in Liverpool Street, but also continental cleaners, baristas, bartenders, all sorts of precariously employed workers, needed by the system to keep costs low and demonised by the same system as undesirable scroungers. Perhaps they would have even been able to see nuances in a city like London, where at least 1 million EU migrants live, a place opinion piece-churning Stokey micro-celebrity Moore misrepresents as an opposition of “the media-savvy, educated, Uber-loving loft-dwellers” against poor Londoners who live like Guatemalans (I would like to believe the Eurocentric disdain of this comparison was intentional but I can’t). If they had chosen to listen they might have realised the unfairness of people who lived in this country for decades being denied a vote. They would have been able to realise that it wasn’t only about commoners against an elite, if many of those around them can be denied a vote in the place they have lived for decades.

But the sad truth is that they chose not to listen, instead closing themselves along national lines: solidarity with British workers (in Britain) and solidarity with Greek workers (in Greece). They have chosen to erase EU migrants, in order to simplify their partisan and naive arguments to leave a neoliberal project — yes — but also to jeopardise a project that allowed the free movement and the social mobility of millions otherwise trapped in impoverished economies with little prospect of a future. And moreover, they have in the process of erasing migrants contributed to furthering the xenophobic atmosphere in which this country has been sinking for years, by contributing to a coup of the right, not only in the UK but also in the continent. In this sense we could perhaps say their project is now truly internationalist.

What will be the answer of Lexiters to the problems EU migrants now face in the UK? I don’t know very well but I am tempted to think they will increase the circulation of their preferred socialist papers. Perhaps they will try “riots of Poll Tax proportions”. My impression is that so fragmented is the left after years of austerity that it is highly unlikely they will manage to resist whatever it is to come. The British left’s inability to resist tuition fees hikes, the bedroom tax, IDS and George Osborne’s destruction of the benefits system, among other, seem to suggest this.

In the meantime, they have missed the opportunity to align with workers from 27 other nations at home, in what could have constituted a true international coalition against the inequalities of the EU. It is now too late. On their defence: they have kept their integrity and their ideological purity. That must be worth something. For integrity and ideological purity are deeply intoxicating.

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