The Immigration Battle at the Heart of Brexit

A poster unveiled by a politician who supports Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has prompted an angry debate.

Russell Boyce / Reuters

A former British minister’s apparent about-face on the U.K.’s continued membership in the European Union illustrates the central role immigration is playing both sides of the “Brexit” debate.

Sayeeda Warsi said Monday she was now backing the “remain” campaign after, in her words, the “leave” campaign had abandoned its moderate message to become “small-minded, xenophobic and inward-looking.” Her remarks to The Guardian:

The vision that the Brexit campaign is presenting is not the vision that me and other Brexiters started off with a year ago. The ‘hello world’ approach to Brexit, which is open-minded, visionary, inclusive, has been lost. The moderate message has been lost. And instead we have reverted to a campaign that says: ‘The Turks are coming, the Syrians are coming, the refugees are coming, the Muslims are coming, the terrorists are coming’.

Indeed, Warsi’s remarks are an apparent reference to a poster released last week by Nigel Farage, the head of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which favors the U.K. leaving the EU. Here’s that ad:

Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

The image on Farage’s poster was one of Syrian and other refugees and migrants walking through the heart of the European countryside to reach Germany, Sweden, and other western European nations, as Europe grapples with its most severe refugee crisis since World War II. Britain, like much of the rest of Europe, has been wary of letting in large numbers of these migrants and refugees. The U.K. retains substantial autonomy over how many immigrants it accepts from outside the EU. By contrast, though, under EU rules the U.K. cannot limit migration from within Europe, and has to extend to those migrants much of the same rights and privileges it gives its own citizens. It’s unclear if Brexit would actually reduce immigration to the U.K. About half of the migrants to Britain come from non-EU countries, and previous efforts to curb immigration have had limited success. Still, Farage’s poster struck a chord—or nerve—depending on your viewpoint.

It’s important to point out here that Farage’s ad was a UKIP poster—and not one issued by the official Vote Leave campaign, which is headed by Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who, like Warsi, is from the ruling Conservative Party. Indeed, many of those who support Brexit distanced themselves from the poster, while those who support Britain’s continued membership in the EU labeled it racist and, in an example of Godwin’s law as well as how far each side is willing to go to tarnish the other, highlighted some of the similarities it shared with World War II-era Nazi propaganda.

But even those who support Britain’s continued membership in the EU, and indeed believe that it makes the U.K. stronger, have been skeptical about immigration. In February Prime Minister David Cameron, who is supporting the “remain” campaign, had secured a host of concessions from the EU on issues including benefits paid to EU migrants. And Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party, who is also supporting the U.K.’s continued EU membership, said over the weekend: “I don’t think you can have [an upper limit to immigration] … while you have free movement of labor.” The comments were seized upon by his rivals in the debate. But those rivals have also been quick to distance themselves from Farage’s poster. Johnson criticized it, and said Britain’s exit would help “neutralize anti-immigrant feeling.” He added he was “passionately pro-immigration and pro-immigrants,” and went as far as to call for an amnesty for immigrants illegally in the U.K. for 12 or more years because it was “the humane thing to do.”

Farage has stood his ground, insisting the only reason he’s being criticized is because of the assassination last week of Jo Cox, the pro-remain Labour Party member of Parliament. And while Michael Gove, the justice secretary and leave campaigner, said Farage’s poster made him “shudder,” he has also previously warned of the consequences of Turkey’s accession to the EU, saying it would pose a security risk to Britain as part of his argument for why Britain should leave the bloc. (The prospect of Turkey joining the EU in the near- or medium-term is dim.)

Warsi, the former minister, told The Guardian she had hoped the debate over Brexit would become more measured following Cox’s assassination, but “when I turned on the television on Sunday morning and saw Nigel Farage defending the indefensible and Michael Gove continue to peddle lies about Turkey’s accession to the EU, that for me was a step too far.”

The referendum is on Thursday—and polls show a statistical dead heat.