EU citizens are part of society, part of communities, and how our taxes are spent should reflect that, Dr Helen de Cruz writes.

First published in July 2019.

Global Future, a Labour think tank has come up with a new proposal: the “EU migrants’” £4.3bn contribution to the UK “should be spent on the poor”, i.e., used as funds to help left-behind, mainly Brexit-voting communities.

The thought behind their proposal goes something like this: Some people in the UK are left behind and they blame foreigners for this. If the taxes of those foreigners are used to help their problems then they will suddenly See The Light and realize that EU citizens are not horrible wage-depressing scroungers after all. This proposal would then solve two problems at once: the glaring wealth disparities in Britain, and its rampant xenophobia.

How realistic is it though? Imagine someone in Boston or Stoke-on-Trent saying “I used to dislike them, but now really like EU migrants because they have funded this cool project in my community where I’m really getting skilled up”. Do you see this realistically happen? Probably not. After all, Wales, Cornwall or North East England had many left-behind communities that benefited from EU funds that net streamed into them, funding various projects. Yet the people benefiting from these projects voted Leave, asking, even now, What has the EU ever done for us?

Moreover, this proposal seems to presuppose that being economically deprived was the only or the main driver of the Leave vote. But the actual picture is more complex. The Brexit vote is also a matter of identity (reflected in age demographics and in the disproportionate percentage of well-off, older, Church of England members who voted for it), and is more associated with the middle class than the working class. It is more cultural backlash than economic deprivation that drove the vote.

It seems positively naive that the authors of this proposal believe anti-immigrant sentiment can be combated by monetizing the value of human beings. We are being reduced to our monetary value. When did this ever make people more tolerant or welcoming to immigrants? No “value for money” rhetoric about immigration is going to change hearts and minds. Instead, we need more face-to-face engagement with immigrants (not coincidentally communities with integrated immigrant communities like London which are much more pro-immigration). We need fewer lies and misperceptions about EU migration perpetuated by the media such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express (who had the most ardent Brexit vote share).

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The proposal also highlights an enduring problem of how immigrants are being treated in most countries: they are handy political capital to blame for the government’s failures, their taxes can be used as those governments see fit, but they have no say in how their taxes are used, nor can they push back against governmental anti-immigrant rhetoric. Except for Irish citizens, and people jumping through hoops and exorbitant costs of dual citizenship, EU migrants don’t get a say in how their taxes are spent. Instead, the UK government has consistently talked about them as passive bargaining chips/negotiating capital/queue jumpers. Since the Brexit vote, EU citizens have been devoid of any agency, for instance in how the shoddy settled status application is being rushed (recall Amber Rudd saying it would be as easy as shopping online with LK Bennet?)

All this talk about how our net tax contributions should be spent so the xenophobic sentiments of some people can be assuaged and we can be finally tolerable in their eyes feels very disempowering. This proposal, like so many other well-meaning proposals to tackle the “problem” of immigration ultimately will fail, because it divides people and communities into “us” and “them”. A migration fund where migrants’ net contributions fund left-behind communities reinforces the false perception that we are somehow separate from the rest of society, and that our taxes somehow don’t need to fund the schools, roads, and hospitals, that we use. We are part of society, part of communities, and how our taxes are spent should reflect that.🔷

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[This piece was originally published on Medium and re-published in PMP Magazine on 19 July 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Theasby . - Adaptation from "Vote Leave" hoardings poster in Salford. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)