Griff Witte, Washington Post, May 22, 2016
Seen from London, Edinburgh, Oxford or other havens of the cosmopolitan British elite, this country’s vote next month on whether to quit the European Union may appear to be a relatively easy choice.
Not a day goes by when a foreign leader, renowned economist or military chief doesn’t warn of the dire consequences of a vote to leave–for Britain and for the world.
But venture just 45 minutes north of London by train to the ancient market city of Peterborough and it soon becomes clear why, with just over a month to go before the referendum, the polls are running nearly even.
Here, the initials E.U. are spat rather than spoken, Brussels is a dirty word, and all the prophecies of doom seem a small risk compared with the opportunity to unshackle Britain from Europe.
For in Peterborough–by at least one measure the least E.U.-friendly city in Britain–Europe doesn’t mean the world’s most prosperous and peaceful continent. It means a mass influx of Eastern European immigrants across open borders that residents say has transformed this city beyond all measure.
“This used to be the posh part of Peterborough. Look at it now,” David Jackson, a 41-year-old teacher, said as he ruefully surveyed the scene on Lincoln Road, the commercial heart of the city’s multiethnic immigrant communities. “Romanians pissing in the park. Lithuanians out on the street drinking, doing drugs. Even the rats here are on heroin.”
If Britain does vote to leave the E.U. on June 23, analysts say, a powerfully emotional backlash against decades of immigration in cities such as Peterborough will be the primary driver.
“Immigration is by far the best issue for the ‘Leave’ campaign,” Freddie Sayers, editor in chief of the polling firm YouGov, wrote in a recent analysis. “If the coming referendum were only a decision on immigration, the Leave campaign would win by a landslide.”
Although the E.U. itself ranks near the bottom of surveys measuring the issues that matter to Britons, immigration–levels of which have been at historic highs–often tops the list. Advocates for a British exit have hammered the point, arguing that getting out of the E.U. is the only way for the country to control its borders, because the 28-member club guarantees its citizens freedom of movement.
“The Leave campaign is really the Trump campaign with better hair,” William Hague, a pro-E.U. former British foreign secretary, wrote last week, describing a “transatlantic mirror-image” of resentment toward foreigners and protest against the political class.
America’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee has endorsed Brexit, as the British departure from the E.U. is popularly known. That’s in sharp contrast with the stand of virtually every major world leader, except Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the Leave campaign has not welcomed Donald Trump’s support, and it bristles at any parallel.
To Stewart Jackson, Peterborough’s ardently anti-E.U. representative in Parliament, Trump is nothing more than a “media-driven buffoon” who has built his campaign on prejudice and bigotry. The push for Brexit, by contrast, is in his eyes a rational rejection of a supernational union that limits British control over its own laws, “something that no American would accept.”
“We have an old-fashioned view that the best people to run Britain are the British,” Jackson said. “That shouldn’t be a radical concept.”
Still, Jackson acknowledged that when it comes to immigration, there are similarities in the fervency of the backlash in Britain and the United States.
The foreign-born population in both countries is about 13 percent. But immigration has grown significantly faster in the United Kingdom, with the number of foreign-born residents more than doubling over the past two decades. Last year, net migration to Britain–the difference between inflows and outflows–hit a record high at 336,000. Of those, 180,000 were E.U. citizens, who can move to Britain simply by hopping aboard a plane or a train. Unlike in countries across continental Europe, refugees made up only a relatively small portion of the inflow in Britain.
Jackson, the member of Parliament, said his constituents aren’t naturally prejudiced toward foreigners. But he said they have been poorly served by governments that cheer the overall economic benefits of immigration without accounting for the downside: Hospitals and schools are strained, waiting lists for public housing grow longer, and workers–particularly those with low skills–are squeezed out of the labor market.