Mayday in the UK by Philippe Legrain – Project Syndicate October 11th 2016.
LONDON – Conservative Brexiteers – who campaigned for the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union – continue to blather about building an open, outward-looking, free-trading Britain. But the UK is in fact turning inward. Prime Minister Theresa May, who styles herself as the UK’s answer to Angela Merkel, is turning out to have more in common with Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, than with Germany’s internationalist chancellor.
May set out her vision for Britain’s future at the Conservative Party conference this month. She pledged to trigger the UK’s formal exit process by the end of March 2017, and declared national control over immigration – not continued membership in the EU single market – to be her priority in the upcoming “Brexit” negotiations. That stance puts the UK on course for a “hard Brexit” by April 2019.
EU governments rightly insist on freedom of movement as a central pillar of the single market, and May’s nativist lurch has already prompted Merkel and other EU leaders, notably French President François Hollande, to take a tougher line with the UK.
The pound has duly plunged on currency markets, anticipating the economic harm of a hard Brexit: costly trade barriers – customs controls, rules-of-origin requirements, import duties, and discriminatory regulation – will divide UK and EU markets and affect nearly half of Britain’s trade.
But May has not only set the stage for a complete break with the EU; she has also adopted a deeply illiberal vision for the UK’s future, consisting of economic interventionism, political nationalism, and cultural xenophobia. This unelected prime minister is rejecting former Prime Minister David Cameron’s liberal Conservative manifesto (which won him a parliamentary majority last year), Margaret Thatcher’s embrace of globalization in the 1980s, and Britain’s much longer tradition of liberal openness.
After being a near-silent supporter of remaining in the EU during the Brexit campaign, May has now donned the mantle of Brexiteer populism, targeting both “international elites” and Britons with a cosmopolitan outlook. “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” she said in her keynote conference speech. “They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal.”
Echoing nationalists such as Le Pen and Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, she asserted that, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Ironically, it is May’s notion that there is a single way of belonging to Britain’s political community that is un-British.
May demanded that UK-based businesses privilege British workers in the “spirit of citizenship” – another term for what Le Pen calls “national preference.” This is more than just rhetoric. The status of EU nationals in the UK is a bargaining chip in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. May wants to keep out future EU migrants, whom she wrongly blames for taking Britons’ jobs and depressing their wages. Home Secretary Amber Rudd would go even further. She recently called for UK-based businesses to list their foreign staff, in order to “name and shame” companies that do not recruit “enough” British workers. “British jobs for British workers” was a slogan used by the racist National Front party in the UK in the 1970s. Now it has backing in the cabinet
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