In February, the U.K.’s best-selling tabloid, The Sun, published a front page that compared immigration from European Union countries with the advance of enemy forces during WWII. The accompanying text slammed Prime Minister David Cameron for failing to negotiate new controls on immigration and dismissed a deal that prevented migrants from the E.U. from claiming welfare benefits for four years as insufficient.
It was a sign of things to come. Brexit, the nickname for Thursday’s referendum on whether the U.K. should leave or remain in the European Union, concerns a thicket of issues: Employment rights. Trade agreements. Taxation autonomy. Diplomatic influence. But overwhelmingly, the debate has focused on just one specific concern: immigration.
Of course, right-wing newspapers have been running stories for years about the supposed dangers of immigration from European countries. “Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians head for the UK” screamed The Daily Mail, for example, after controls on migration from those states were lifted in 2013. Last year, in response to the continent’s migrant crisis, Katie Hopkins wrote a column for The Sun calling for gunships to be deployed in the Mediterranean Sea to stop refugees from entering Europe. Her piece began, “No, I don’t care. Show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”
As the June 23 vote has drawn closer, the alarmism about immigration has somehow hit new heights. “Mass migration is allowing terrorists to pour into Europe” read a Daily Mail headline in April, while The Sun claimed, “Tide of Terror: Jihadis ARE exploiting refugee crisis to smuggle militants across Europe.” Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), unveiled a poster last week featuring a queue of refugees and migrants with the words “BREAKING POINT” in red. Critics have compared the imagery to Nazi propaganda.
Farage is one of the most prominent figures in the anti-E.U. movement, and in many ways this referendum represents the culmination of his life’s work. He first joined the UKIP when it was in its infancy, immediately following the signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty to create an integrated Europe. He became the party’s leader in 2006, and has overseen its rise from obscurity to become a major political force. UKIP secured nearly 13 percent of votes in last year’s general election. Due to the U.K.’s non-proportional electoral system, this didn’t translate into a significant legislative presence: The party holds just one seat in the House of Commons.
But UKIP’s influence has been far-reaching. Politicians from both major parties are now keen to show they take concerns about immigration seriously—while too few attempt to make a convincing case for welcoming migrants.
Last Thursday, Member of Parliament Jo Cox, 41, was shot dead outside a library in West Yorkshire where she was about to hold a constituency surgery. A moderate by most measures, she had been a strong advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants. She was also a vocal backer of the Remain campaign and had tweeted a photo of her husband and children aboard last Wednesday’s pro-E.U. Thames flotilla.
This week, 52-year-old Thomas Mair, appeared in court charged with her murder. When asked to give his name, he instead said “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Among those who were already critical of the anti-immigrant tone of the Leave campaign, many feel that Cox’s death is a direct consequence of such extreme and divisive rhetoric. “If you keep talking about breaking points and traitors,” one 20-something Londoner told me, “it’s not surprising someone might snap.”
Many in the anti-E.U. camp have pushed back against what they see as the “politicization of a tragedy.” They contend that Mair was a loner who apparently suffered from mental illness; as such, his actions can’t be blamed on the wider political climate. I spoke to one man who said that, though he planned to vote for the U.K. to remain in the E.U., “I feel a bit uneasy about anyone using this as an argument for Remain.”
In recent days, several prominent anti-E.U. figures have tried to distance themselves from the most toxic aspects of the Leave campaign. Baroness Warsi, former chair of the Conservative Party, went as far as to switch her allegiance to Remain, describing the “hate and xenophobia” of UKIP’s “breaking point” poster as “a step too far.” She has faced Islamophobic abuse online since defecting, and right-wing Breitbart London nicknamed her “Baroness Token.”
Other politicians have stuck to their guns while attempting to emphasize the distinction between the Leave.EU campaign, which Farage is associated with, and the formally distinct Vote Leave campaign, which is supported by most pro-Leave MPs. “That’s not my politics and that’s not my campaign,” former London Mayor Boris Johnson told reporters during a recent tour of fishing ports in East Anglia.
However, last month Leave EU was also accused of stoking prejudice after it claimed continued E.U. membership would put Britons in danger by exposing them to the criminality of Turkish citizens. Turkey isn’t currently part of the E.U., but is keen to negotiate membership, and headlines have warned this means “75 million Turks [are] on course for visa-free travel in EU”—a claim which has been repeated by Leave campaigners. Rather than reaffirm their commitment to the union’s open borders, pro-E.U. politicians responded to these claims by insisting that free movement of people between Turkey and the U.K. is, in the words of Labour MP Chuka Umunna, “not going to happen.” Cameron recently confirmed that he wouldn’t support Turkey joining the E.U. within the next couple of years, but dodged questions on longer-term possibilities.
This sort of tiptoeing around immigration has become common among pro-E.U. politicians. Even the left-wing Labour Party has been guilty of it. Last year, under then-leader Ed Miliband, it produced mugs branded with the words “controls on immigration,” in a much-mocked attempt to woo floating voters. But there are signs of hope. Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn historically has been skeptical of the E.U. on economic grounds, but now backs Remain. In a recent interview, he angered party centrists by stating that the free movement of people within the E.U. means there can be no upper limit on immigration numbers.
To counter the influence of right-wing media and Nigel Farage’s UKIP, more politicians must follow Conservative MP Gavin Barwell’s lead in arguing that immigration is unambiguously “good for Britain.” The argument is rather straightforward: E.U. migrants are net economic contributors to the U.K. Blaming overstretched and underfunded public services on immigration is an easy option, but the math doesn’t add up. Tax revenue from migrants, the vast majority of whom are of working age, helps Britain meet the health and social-care needs of an aging population. Contrary to claims that E.U. immigration increases unemployment among British citizens, a recent report by the non-partisan International Longevity Centre found that by 2064-65 the nation’s GDP would be 11.4 percent larger with high migration compared to low migration. Suggestions that wages have been depressed appear to be similarly unfounded.
Anti-immigration rhetoric is toxic, but also powerful. It’s essential that pro-E.U. politicians defend immigration with equivalent passion. This will be just as true even if Britain votes on Thursday to remain in the E.U. Indeed, it’s clear that this debate has only just begun.