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The Common Travel Area (CTA): complacent talk about migration

Whether the UK leaves the EU or not, and no matter under what terms, the fight to uphold higher standards in public debate is a vital task for a human-centred world.

lead Stop Brexit march to Parliament. London, UK, March 2017. Ik Aldama/Press Association. All rights reserved.

All of the talk about the ‘backstop’ and a ‘frictionless border’ is about future trade between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK). The fact that both the EU and the UK are much more interested in the movement of goods than they are in the movement of people, speaks volumes. For both main parties, people are secondary to the pursuit of profit.

Left-wing supporters of Brexit are caught between the contradiction that the Brexit victory, (which they campaigned for), could not have been secured without an anti-immigrant campaign (which they oppose, in principle, if not always in practice). These Lexiteers attempt to evade the uncomfortable fact that Leave would not have won without the support of xenophobes. They do so by either attempting to downplay the significance of anti-immigrant sentiment to the Leave victory, or by claiming that they support a fantastical creation that only exists in their own imaginations, which they call “a workers’ Brexit”. Very few of these Lexiteers bother to engage with the reality of what Brexit will mean.

Peter Ramsay and Chris Bickerton, founding members of The Full Brexit, (a left-wing campaign for the UK to make ‘a clean break’ from the EU), have at least tried to engage with the issue of the border on the island of Ireland. They have attempted to resolve the contradiction between their advocacy of open borders and their advocacy of Brexit by arguing that: “Free movement of people is guaranteed by the pre-EU Common Travel Area [CTA] between Britain and Ireland”. There are two problems with their argument. Firstly, it is misleading. The CTA is not a guarantee of free movement of people. Secondly, it is complacent. The CTA is not a guarantee of free movement of people.

The CTA does not guarantee free movement of people. It only covers some people, UK and Irish citizens. It does not cover the citizens of any of the other EU member states, or citizens of states outside the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement that Teresa May has negotiated, and most of the alternatives which are being proposed to replace it, would restrict immigration. The ‘backstop’ is compatible with restricting immigration.

So, unless the UK leaves the EU under terms which guarantee free movement of people, (which May, Jeremy Corbyn, and everyone who says that we must ‘respect the will of the British people’ presumably reject), there will be tighter controls on people moving across the border on the island of Ireland. These controls are likely to be supplemented by controls on the movement of people between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Writing on the wall

There is one very good reason to believe that the movement of people is going to become more restricted. It is already becoming more restricted, even before Brexit. This is the case, not just for non-EU citizens, but for EU citizens as well.

Brexit has revealed a reality that people in Northern Ireland are all too familiar with. For most people in the rest of the UK, academics and pro-migrant activists included, Northern Ireland is thought of as a foreign country, a place apart, most of the time. I urge pro-migrant activists to take the time to read my detailed article which outlines immigration controls in Northern Ireland, and the likely impact of Brexit on immigration controls on the island of Ireland.

Ramsay and Bickerton’s argument is complacent, because the CTA is not a guarantee. It is a bi-lateral administrative arrangement, not a legally binding agreement.  As such, it is not even a guarantee of free movement for UK and Irish citizens. It is not a guarantee of anything. It can be unilaterally suspended, or even revoked, by either government. It can be amended without consultation, or the need for legislation in parliament. It will only exist in its current form as long as it is in the mutual interests of both parties, the UK and Irish governments, to keep it in its current form. As the authors of a recent report for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission put it, the CTA is “written in sand”.

Wilful distortions

Brexit is a mess. One of the reasons why it is a mess is because the discussions around it have been rife with half-truths, lies, exaggeration, deception, fantasy politics, lack of transparency and lack of accountability. These wilful distortions of truth are corrosive to a properly functioning democracy. They make it more difficult for the mass of ordinary working people to hold the powerful to account.

Both the Remain and Leave side are guilty of these wilful distortions of truth.

Whether the UK does leave the EU or not, and no matter under what terms if it does, the fight to uphold higher standards in public debate is a vital task for anyone who believes in a human-centred world. We need higher standards in public debate in order to hold back the slide into populist playing to the gallery on the one side, and the technocratic reduction of humanity to entries on spreadsheets on the other. This is no time for complacency.

About the author

Chris Gilligan is the author of Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism and editor of several collections on the politics of migration and on the politics of Northern Ireland. He was a founding member of Open Borders Scotland, and he has been active in pro-migrant campaigning for over a decade.

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