Tuesday 20 November 2018

Jumping The Queue And Other Lies

Theresa May, who brought us the hostile environment, the "citizens of nowhere" speech, and the Windrush deportations, has struck again. This time, trying to sell her embattled Brexit deal to the public, she has said it will stop EU citizens from "jumping the queue" ahead of "engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi".

This is offensive nonsense. There is no queue; EU citizens have exercised a right of free movement guaranteed by international treaty. But it's revealing of the aims and likely outcome of Brexit.

Theresa May. Source: The Independent/Reuters

What does May mean by this phrase? Of course, some of it is tribal signalling, almost beneath the level of spoken language. "Britain good, Europe bad" is the crude subtext. For this purpose, she might as well be flinging her own feces at a European flag. But there's something more interesting going on here.

Let's take May's words at face value for a moment. If they mean anything at all, she seems to be saying the UK is excluding superior workers from outwith the EU, in favour of inferior Europeans.

There is the tiniest grain of truth to this. Imagine a British startup company, pioneering ideas in biotechnology which could transform science and medicine as we know them. (I spent several years working for a company like this, so I speak from experience.) Let's call the company Blue Sun.

Suppose Blue Sun wants to hire an engineer. A citizen of the EU can simply show up and work, with a minimum of fuss and paperwork. For Blue Sun, it's no more difficult than hiring a British citizen.

For a candidate from elsewhere in the world, it's much harder. Blue Sun must sponsor a visa and demonstrate it was unable to find an equally qualified candidate from the EU. The Home Office is well known for making errors and losing paperwork, to the extent of deporting skilled workers with every right to be in the UK. Even if the process goes smoothly, it's time-consuming and expensive.

There are indirect barriers too. A candidate from Germany can easily bring his or her family. They can go to work or school in the UK. A candidate from China would face serious barriers to having a family life in the UK, and quite possibly be put off applying in the first place.

Does it mean Blue Sun hires slightly less good candidates than it otherwise might? At the margins, sure. If a candidate from outwith the EU is clearly much better, companies will run the gauntlet to get them a visa. But if it's a close decision between two candidates, the difficulty of procuring a work visa might swing it.

These bureaucratic obstacles were created by the UK government alone.

Immigration procedure has become a lot worse in recent years -- not because of some diktat from Brussels, but because the government in which Theresa May served as Home Secretary decided it wanted a hostile environment for immigrants. The government could lift the restrictions tomorrow if it wanted; but it has no intention of doing so.

The language about a "queue" is revealing. The government has set an arbitrary net target of no more than 100,000 people per year entering the UK. In this crude and simplistic accounting, if a Portuguese baker enters, there is one less space for an Australian neurosurgeon.

Of course this is nonsense. The baker and the neurosurgeon are not in conflict with one another. Less exalted workers from the EU27, whether they are bakers or care workers or fruit pickers, are not taking anything away; on the contrary, they are making contributions the UK badly needs. But maybe May sees the world in such a blockheaded, zero-sum, black-and-white fashion that she actually believes in the arbitrary target. Maybe she fondly imagines a post-Brexit government will throw open the door to the highly educated elite, while excluding more humble workers from Europe.

I don't believe it will happen. British immigration policy has a momentum of its own. By now, hostility to foreigners is an addiction the government can't kick. It won't be able to help itself.

The government may carve out some kind of fast track for skilled workers; but getting onto the fast track will involve plenty of expenses, form-filling, and hostile interrogation from the Home Office. There will be no question of partners, children, or elderly parents getting in easily, if they get in at all. The political consensus, convinced foreigners are thieves and freeloaders until proven otherwise, will accept no less.

Whatever emerges will be a pitiful substitute for the freedom enjoyed by EU citizens today -- for Brits seeking to live and work in the rest of Europe, as well as Europeans coming to the UK.

Leaving the EU will mean not opening the door to Australia or India, but closing it to France and Poland. What will it mean for Britain?

The startup company I worked for was a great success story. It created an immensely valuable product, in a highly competitive marketplace. It's no exaggeration to say it has already changed the lives of millions, and will do so for many more. Along the way, it's created hundreds of high-quality jobs and paid a huge amount in taxes. Needless to say, none of it was easy.

Staff from across the European Union were a vital part of this success. I remember hugely talented colleagues from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Estonia. It was a great privilege to work with them. Without them, the company would have been less than it was. It might not have succeeded in the challenges it faced. It could have been overtaken by a company in San Francisco or Stockholm or Singapore, and ended up as no more than a footnote to history.

If you're pursuing excellence, trying to be the best in the world at what you do, you want to recruit from the widest possible range of talent. From this point of view, a choice of 500 million people across the EU is much better than the 65 million in the UK.

The government doesn't care about innovation, commercial success, or scientific and engineering achievement. It's an insult to our intelligence to pretend that it does. What the government seeks to do, is end free movement for the sake of ending free movement.

In this it is aided and abetted by the Labour Party, which bluntly says:

Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.
This is the direction of Brexit: Towards a United Kingdom which celebrates and embraces mediocrity.

Excellence requires openness and engagement with the outside world. It's too scary, too complicated, too much work. The leadership of the United Kingdom prefers to go into decline; becoming a country best known for crumbling monuments to past glory, and for a sullen suspicion of all things foreign.

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