Brexit tensions and the two 'i-words'

Crunch time is coming for Brexit, Britain’s decision to end its decades-long membership in the European Union. But whatever economic pain the British suffer as a result, it’s the EU that may face the greater long-term political challenge.

That’s due to the environment in which the negotiations on implementing Brexit are taking place, with two issues increasingly shaping events not just in Europe, but more widely in the early 21st -century world. You might call them the two “i’s”: immigration and identity politics. 

The economics of Brexit are daunting enough. Britain is due to negotiate its formal departure by next March, activating a 20-month transition before leaving. The IMF said last week that there will be “costs” for the UK even if that process goes smoothly – something far from certain, given rising Brexit tensions in recent days both between Britain and the EU and in Britain’s domestic political arena. If the terms of departure can’t be agreed, the IMF foresees a “no-deal Brexit” with “dire consequences” including lower growth, a higher deficit, currency depreciation, and a “reduction in the size of the [UK] economy.”

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The deeper worry for the EU, however, is that Brexit is part of a trend toward an assertively nationalistic brand of politics, wary of international cooperation and of post-World War II international organizations like the EU.

Inside the EU, the starkest examples are Poland and Hungary, admitted in 2004 as part of an effort to draw former Soviet-bloc states into an alliance bound not just by commerce but a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. In an unprecedented, if still symbolic, move, the EU parliament has rebuked both countries: Poland for assailing the independence of the judiciary, and Hungary for its crackdown on the media, educational freedom, and minority and migrant communities.

Older member states aren’t immune, either. Over the past year, far-right parties have joined coalition governments in Austria and Italy. Similar parties have been gaining influence in Sweden, France, and Germany. They share a fierce nationalism; skepticism or outright hostility toward the EU and other international institutions; and a political relying largely on the two “i’s.”

Immigration is a genuine concern. Several million asylum-seekers and economic migrants have arrived in Europe in recent years, fleeing areas like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. This became an especially hot political topic after Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to a major upsurge in 2015 with a program to resettle the new arrivals in Germany and other member states, something she saw as consistent with the values of the EU.

But the roots of the challenge run deeper, which is where the second “I” – identity politics – comes in. It’s also why the response by some mainstream political parties – to toughen their own immigration policies – may well not provide a sustainable answer. Immigration has touched on a wider sense of unmooring, a loss of personal control, especially in the face of an increasingly interconnected, high-tech world economy that has created not only winners but losers.

This has bred nostalgia for a time when things seemed simpler, especially for families who may have worked in industries that have since contracted or disappeared. Though immigration is rarely the main cause of the economic setbacks, it has become a powerful focus for identity politics: an “us-versus-them” narrative locating the reason, and the promised resolution, for new-world challenges in people who look different, talk differently or worship differently. In the case of the 2016 referendum endorsing Brexit, support for the “leave” cause in former mining and manufacturing areas in northern England provided one key to its narrow victory, galvanizing opposition to visa-free immigration from elsewhere in the EU.

The challenge for the EU is that it is an artificial construct, part of a postwar effort to supplant centuries of European conflict and two world wars within the space of two decades, with a commitment to cooperation, compromise, and conciliation. Its story lacks the visceral power of two “i” nationalism. Yet leading EU politicians like Chancellor Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron know that the alliance needs to find a way to get its story heard, make it compelling, and perhaps refight a last-century political battle to win its acceptance.

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