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Remain: Vote to leave EU understandable

This is my second column on the British vote to withdraw from the European Union.

One Leave sign we saw was, “Do you consider yourself British or European?” The question/slogan could be read as a crass appeal to national pride. But that interpretation would be more exclusively true had it read “German,” say, or “Belgian,” because in those countries the two identities are less an either/or than in England, which always has had one foot, not two, on the continent. Tellingly, it chose to retain the British pound in 1992 when the other large EU members adopted the Euro.

Long before the EU formed, England belonged to another transnational group — the British Commonwealth, successor to the British Empire, over which it exercised far more influence that it can over the EU. And its historical and linguistic ties with the U.S. also pull against a European orientation. One cab driver told Deborah and me that he feels closer to the U.S. than to Europe.

Their only partial European identity is one reason Brits balked at integration into an increasingly political European community. Another is its reluctance to have its national laws preempted by EU legislation, especially since there is a widespread perception that the EU is run by managers in Brussels unresponsive to the general populace. There is an elected EU parliament, but the European Commission wields more power.

In my July 2 column on patriotism, I wrote that a single global government, even if feasible, wouldn’t be desirable because it would be too remote from individual citizens to be democratic. The EU is by no means as large, far-flung, and diverse as a global government would be. As of 2015 it had just over 500 million residents with a geographical compactness and much shared history. I would like it to work politically, which is why I would have voted to remain. The EU has made unlikely the prospect of wars among its members, an extraordinary achievement given Europe’s bloody history. Still, as I watch the U.S. Congress deprive states of their ability to require labeling of GMO foodstuffs, I can sympathize with Brexit supporters to whom ceding lawmaking in areas like labor, health, and immigration felt like a wrenching loss of sovereignty.

Immigration was an issue that, properly considered, related to sovereignty. Regrettably, bigotry gave emotional impetus to the demand that “control of our borders” be returned to their own nation.

Bigotry has long motivated British antagonism to immigration. It was stirred by the large influx of peoples of color from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Asian sub-continent following the British Nationality Act of 1948, which allowed residents of countries in the British Commonwealth/Empire to enter and work in the UK without a visa. Anglo resentment led to the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which required migrants either to have a job before they arrived, to possess special skills, or to meet the "labour needs" of the national economy. Restrictions were furthered tightened in the Immigration Act of 1972. So from 1962 to 1991 the UK had a net loss of migration. That trend reversed in the following decade (more than 50,000 annually) and skyrocketed between 2001 and 2010 (about 250,000 annually). In that latter decade about 70 percent of the UK’s added population of 7.5 million were foreign-born.

Interestingly, though, when out-migration of British citizens is counted, the UK’s net migration from the EU isn’t huge. Between April 2013 and April 2014, 214,000 residents of other EU nations moved there — but 83,000 left, as did 131,000 British citizens (admittedly not all to the Continent). In 2014 Poland was the only EU country ranking among the top five sources of arrivals; China, India, the U.S. and Australia were the others. Nonetheless, many Brits believe that their stronger economy and a welfare system more generous than those of eastern European nations attract people from there, who then supposedly burden the system. But just how much immigrants cost the British taxpayer wasn’t really the motive of anti-immigrant feeling, any more than it is in this country, where undocumented workers add much more to the economy than they subtract.

Still, putting aside xenophobia, the sovereignty question might give us pause. Control of their borders has been a traditional prerogative of nations. Even folks I know who are sympathetic to the undocumenteds in our nation rarely suggest that we have open borders. In this regard the EU is a bold experiment. I’d like it to succeed, but significant disparities in wealth among its members, seriously exacerbated when the A-8 eastern European countries were added in 2004, make it challenging.

It’s widely believed that Leave voters, misled by false claims and their own xenophobia, didn’t know what they were doing. My take on this is no, maybe, and yes. No regarding reclaiming sovereignty. Maybe regarding the magnitude of direct savings from Brexit and the reduction in immigration. Yes regarding the economic impact, but that holds true for the Remains despite their confident predictions of large losses, which was the core of their case.

No one knows the impact on trade and investment between the UK and EU nations. The EU is Britain’s largest trading partner, but its percentage has fallen steadily since 1999 and is well below 50 percent now. Much will depend on the new terms Britain can negotiate. Angela Merkel seems readier to maintain a strong relationship than the angry leaders of other EU members, probably because Germany runs a large trade surplus with Britain.

Brexit has introduced a new economic uncertainty, and the financial community hates uncertainty. Stability has its virtues, and the Leavers may live to regret the risk they’ve taken. But I can’t dismiss their motives simply as foolish or reprehensible.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.