U.K.’s Immigration Unease Animates ‘Brexit’ Vote

By Jenny Gross and Jason Douglas – Re-logged From Wall Street Journal

Surge of new arrivals fuels support for leaving the European Union, as seen in one town that’s been transformed

Andrew Fraser says increasing immigration to Boston, England, where he has lived for most of his life, has radically transformed the town’s character.
Andrew Fraser says increasing immigration to Boston, England, where he has lived for most of his life, has radically transformed the town’s character. Photo: Mark Salmon for The Wall Street Journal

Resident Andrew Fraser said when Britons go to the polls on June 23 to vote on the country’s membership, he will be voting for Britain’s exit, or “Brexit,” because he believes a sharp rise in immigrants to Boston, where he has lived for most of his life, has radically transformed the town’s character.

“That’s not English, that’s not English, that’s not English,” the 57-year-old retiree said, gesturing to various shops around the town. “It’s all gone.”

Unease about immigration has been fueling anti-EU sentiment in the U.K., just as similar concerns have fostered frustration with political elites in the U.S. and across Europe.

In the U.K., rising immigration levels have galvanized debate about the country’s ties to the Continent. Britons uncomfortable about the rise in immigration blame EU membership for allowing unfettered arrivals from Europe. Others see the issue as an indication that Brussels has too much say over Britain in general, that the EU is unaccountable, and that membership, at £8 billion a year ($11.6 billion), is too costly.

A string of recent opinion polls suggest support has swung in favor of those campaigning to leave, with several surveys placing that camp in the lead. (See the results of the polls here.) The “leave” campaign’s focus on the immigration issue appears to be resonating with the public.

The U.K.’s EU Referendum Explained

 Should the U.K. remain in or leave the European Union? That’s the question the British public will decide in a referendum on June 23. WSJ’s Niki Blasina explains the debate and what’s at stake.

Under EU rules, anyone from the bloc can live and work in any EU member state. Those lobbying for Britain’s exit say that is the only way the country can control its borders.

Immigration in the U.K. has risen sharply over the past decade or so, particularly in the wake of the EU’s expansion eastward to include countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Romania. Its relatively strong economic performance has drawn many EU citizens looking to escape the sluggishness that has beset the wider region.

Boston, a medieval town some 110 miles north of London, has seen the biggest percentage increase in immigrants between 2001 and 2011 of anywhere in England and Wales, with numbers increasing nearly sixfold since the early 2000s, according to Migration Observatory, an independent analysis center at the University of Oxford. Roughly 10,000 foreign-born people live in Boston, a town of about 65,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Street scene

The town’s bustling West Street is lined with Baltic supermarkets, Polish delicatessens and corner shops with specialty foods from Eastern Europe. Many stores and banks display signs in English, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian. Several Eastern European convenience stores display the European Union symbol on their storefronts.

Boston’s West Street is lined with Baltic supermarkets, Polish delicatessens and corner shops with specialty foods from Eastern Europe.
Boston’s West Street is lined with Baltic supermarkets, Polish delicatessens and corner shops with specialty foods from Eastern Europe. Photo: Mark Salmon for The Wall Street Journal

Advocates of immigration say it has been mostly positive for the British economy by fueling growth, lifting tax revenue and attracting skilled workers in financial services and health care, among other areas. Unemployment in Boston stood at 4.4% at the end of last year, compared with 5.1% in the U.K. as a whole.

Immigration critics say it is contributing to the erosion of British traditions, values and way of life, while placing pressure on Britain’s public resources and infrastructure.

Boston’s debate echoes that seen in the U.S., where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been preaching American renewal, more immigration controls and taking on the Washington establishment. The businessman has made a hard line on illegal immigration in particular a centerpiece of his campaign.

Populist political parties elsewhere in Europe are offering tougher lines on immigration than mainstream parties and are skeptical of power centralized in Brussels. In Austria, the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer came close to winning the presidency last month, and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany made historic gains in German state elections earlier this year.

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Pollsters in the U.K. identify unease over immigration as a critical determinant of how likely voters are to cast their ballots in favor of leaving the EU. More than 40% of voters backing Brexit said immigration was the most important factor in deciding how they will vote, followed by Britain’s ability to make its own laws, according to a survey published this month by pollsters YouGov PLC.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who is spearheading the pro-EU push, has sought to focus the debate on the economic risks of leaving, rather than how he would reduce immigration while remaining in the EU.

“It’s a big hole in the remain campaign,” says Simon Hix, politics professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “The leave campaign were holding off cleverly until the last few weeks of the campaign to press the immigration button because they knew that was the weak spot, and now they’re pressing it relentlessly.”

The campaign to remain said the EU citizens in the U.K. do vital work, including in the health-care system, and contribute to the economy.

“There are good ways of controlling migration, and one of them is the important rules we’re bringing in so people don’t get instant access to our welfare system,” Mr. Cameron said in Parliament on Wednesday. “But there are bad ways of controlling immigration. Leaving the single market and wrecking our economy is certainly one of them.”

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Official figures released last month showed the number of new arrivals to the U.K. from Europe continued to increase in 2015, with net EU migration—the number of people arriving minus those leaving—at 184,000, up 10,000 from a year earlier. There was a more than 30% increase in Bulgarians and Romanians, who in 2014 gained the same rights to work in the U.K. as other EU citizens.

“Immigration is a powerful symbol of our lack of control,” says Boris Johnson, London’s former mayor and the most prominent politician campaigning for the U.K. to leave the EU. “It shows just how much we’ve abdicated our ability to run the country.”

More than three million of the U.K.’s roughly 65 million people were born elsewhere, according to the official statistics agency. Official projections suggest another three million EU and other citizens will make Britain their home over the next 15 years.

Nearly half of Britons surveyed believe leaving the EU will reduce immigration over the next few years, while 29% think that it will have no impact, according to a survey this month by YouGov.

Those campaigning to stay argue even if the U.K. left the EU it would have to continue to accept the EU’s freedom-of-movement rules in exchange for free trade with EU members. Those campaigning to leave dispute this, saying the U.K. could negotiate access to the single market without accepting the EU principle.

In Boston, newcomers have led to the opening of new shops and businesses, which has diversified the town’s economy.

Mark Tinsley, managing director of P.C. Tinsley Ltd., which grows wheat, sugar beets, cauliflower and other vegetables in farmland surrounding Boston, said the free movement of people across the EU has helped his business. Immigrants from Eastern Europe have helped make his farm more productive, he said.

“The opportunity to employ people from Europe has been incredibly positive,” he said. He employs about 50 people, mostly Eastern Europeans, at peak harvest season. “The last thing we want to see is a vote to leave,” he said.

Karol Sokolowski, a 30-year-old owner of a Polish restaurant in Boston, said his customers include the English as well as those from Poland. He said he moved to town in 2010 because he wasn’t earning enough money as a factory worker in Poland to support his wife and children. “There are more shops, more money spent,” he said. “The town looks better.”

Karol Sokolowski, who owns a Polish restaurant in Boston, moved to town in 2010 because he wasn’t earning enough money as a factory worker in Poland to support his wife and children.
Karol Sokolowski, who owns a Polish restaurant in Boston, moved to town in 2010 because he wasn’t earning enough money as a factory worker in Poland to support his wife and children. Photo: Mark Salmon for The Wall Street Journal

Among Boston residents one common complaint is that housing is no longer affordable, with the number of new arrivals having simultaneously pushed up rents and helped keep a lid on wages. The average rent in 2015 was around £570 a month, the highest of the seven districts in Lincolnshire, while average wages, at £411 a week, were the lowest. Average wages in Boston rose 27% between 2002 and 2015, compared with 35% in the U.K. as a whole.

In one residential district south of the town center, dozens of two- and three-bedroom redbrick homes now sometimes sleep 10 or more workers, according to local government officials. Boston resident Kirsty Healey, a 31-year-old sales associate at a shoe store, said she and her family would like to move out of public housing but can’t afford to because immigration has driven up rents. “You do get a bit resentful,” she said.

School effect

More than a quarter of all children at Boston’s schools speak English as a second language, and in some areas of town the proportion is as high as 65%. That compares with 8% for Lincolnshire as a whole.

Student totals in Boston have risen by almost 1,000 in the past seven years, to around 10,000. That increase has fueled perceptions that local families’ children are losing out on school places to the children of recent arrivals.

Teachers and council officials say rising numbers have put additional pressure on schools and added challenges, such as finding multilingual teachers. At the same time, they also have brought additional funding. They say local concerns are often exaggerated, citing data showing the vast majority of parents get their preferred school for their children.

Rob Davidson, a 68-year-old taxi driver from Boston, said he used to be supportive of EU membership because of its trade benefits, but now believes EU politicians have too much power over the U.K. government. “It’s being run by bloody Brussels,” he said.

The UK Independence Party, with its tough-on-immigration and anti-EU message, has seen a rise in support. In Boston local elections last year, UKIP secured 13 of 30 council seats—having not won any in the previous elections—putting it on an equal footing with the long-dominant Conservatives. UKIP made similar gains in Boston during the 2015 parliamentary election, putting it in second place behind the governing Conservatives and pushing the main opposition Labour Party into third.

Alan Jessen mans a stand in Boston promoting Britain's exit from the European Union.
Alan Jessen mans a stand in Boston promoting Britain’s exit from the European Union. Photo: Mark Salmon for The Wall Street Journal

Chris Dawson, a 69-year-old owner of a butcher shop in Boston, said she worries leaving the EU could increase costs for the wholesalers that she buys meat from, and therefore for her. She is also frustrated by the strain she said immigration has placed on public services.

Like some other women who live in Boston, she said she no longer feels safe walking outside at night because of groups of Eastern European men. “It’s horrible,” she said.

Matt Warman, the Conservative lawmaker who represents Boston, will be voting to remain because he thinks the U.K. will be better off economically, but he said he is skeptical about the EU and its migration policy.

“On the one hand, almost everyone that has come to Boston has come to work,” he said. “But handling an influx of immigrants in a short period of time is challenging.”

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