speri.comment: the political economy blog

Immigration, refugees and the politics of crisis

By focusing on the ‘perception’ of immigration Streeck’s recent SPERI paper was a missed opportunity to present progressive solutions to the ‘refugee crisis’

Dr Cemal Burak Tansel, Anniversary Postdoctoral Research Fellow & Dr Joe Turner, Research Fellow in the Politics of International Migration

cemal-joe-100Wolfgang Streeck’s new SPERI paper ‘Exploding Europe’ aims to contextualise the Brexit vote by highlighting the shortcomings of the EU’s response to the ‘refugee crisis’ and the ‘anti-immigration sentiment’ the policy has triggered.  Streeck places particular emphasis on how the German government utilised the refugee policy as an ‘immigration policy by the back door’ as well as on the way in which the influx of immigrants and refugees affects the conditions of the working classes in Germany and beyond.  We are sympathetic to Streeck’s broader critique of the EU as the Union suffers from a ‘long-term democratic deficit’ and acts as a custodian of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ particularly in southern Europe.  Yet we are also troubled by both the implicit assumptions that underpin Streeck’s critique and the problematic association he constructs between immigration and the decline in living and working conditions in Europe.  This brief response thus challenges the false dichotomy between recognising the rights of refugees and immigrants, or defending the rights and conditions of the working classes, and offers some comments on how democratic politics could be reconfigured to fully understand the politics of immigration.

One methodological problem in the paper is that Streeck effectively blurs the line between ‘immigrants’ and ‘asylum seekers and refugees’—two distinct categories that are governed by different laws and regulations in the UK and the EU.  Despite the fact that ‘refugees’ and ‘immigrants’ do not have the same type of access to labour markets and are subject to different border controls, Streeck’s branding of refugee policy as ‘immigration policy by the back door’ results in the production of an undifferentiated category of ‘immigrant/refugee’, a figure that emerges in Streeck’s narrative as a burden for the welfare and working rights of European citizens.  After launching an extensive denouncement of Merkel government’s refugee policy, Streeck speculates that the Brexit vote was essentially a rejection of a ‘quasi-constitutional’ imposition on Britain to open its borders and labour market.  Streeck sympathises with Brexit voters who

‘may rightly have been afraid of being burdened with yet another quasi-constitutional, democratically unchangeable obligation unconditionally to open their borders and their labour markets, not just to immigrants from other, less prosperous EU member countries but also to whoever would demand entry as an asylum seeker or refugee.’

We are not challenging the impact of immigration—and as one Conservative peer put, the ‘divisive and xenophobic’ campaign constructed around it—on the Brexit vote.  Yet we are troubled by the way Streeck casually merges the reality of immigration in the UK with its widely off-the-mark public perception and elevates the ‘perception’ as the determinant of the vote.  The ‘perception’ that Streeck takes for granted in his analysis is the one that affirms the immigrants’ ‘negative’ impact on wages and the working conditions of the ‘home’ population—a claim which also reifies a binary construction of citizenship where ‘migrants’ already living and working in Britain are cast as ‘outsiders’.  Let’s leave aside the fact that the UK has one of the lowest numbers of asylum applicants per capita in Western Europe and rejected 63.6 per cent of asylum applications in 2015.  If we focus solely on the immigrants’ impact on wages, comprehensive reviews on the subject suggest that ‘there is still little evidence of an overall negative impact on jobs or wages’ in the UK.  Coupled with the findings of a state-of-the-art research project on asylum seekers which concluded that ‘no clear correlation [exists] between access to the labour market and the number of asylum applications a country received’, it is clear that ‘economic’ arguments against immigration and accepting refugees should be examined under extreme scrutiny.

Some might argue that criticising the public ‘perception’ is a moot point since voters do not have to be well-informed on various issues to cast their ballots.  However, the target of our critique is not the voters’ choice per se, but Streeck’s narrative, which fails to unpack and engage with the fallacious assumptions that underpin that choice.  More importantly, we contend that implicitly singling out immigrants and refugees for downward wage pressures and deterioration in working conditions lets the governments and their fiscal and monetary policies off the hook.  Falling real wages and increased household debt—or what Susanne Soederberg has labeled ‘a dependence of the working poor on privately created money’—are directly linked to political decision-making stretching back three decades and thus cannot be accounted for by—and should not be linked to—an influx of immigrants and refugees.  As Jonathan Portes argued in an incisive blog post, ‘it stretches credulity to suggest that other things—the level of the minimum wage, the decline in trade union power, technological and industrial change—have not had far bigger impacts on pay’ than immigration.  One may follow Streeck’s argument to its logical conclusion and commend the Brexit voters for protecting their ‘borders and labour market’ from an German/EU-backed wave of immigration, yet such a position would still be at a loss to make sense of the state of the British economy, as it is the British government that, as Danny Dorling asserts, ‘has been systematically underfunding education and training, increasing student loans and debt, tolerating increasingly unaffordable housing, introducing insecure work contracts, and privatizing the services the young will need in future’.  Streeck’s argument is thus politically disabling as it, perhaps accidentally, underplays the impact of neoliberalism and austerity on working and living conditions by shifting the focus to a perceived impact of immigrants and refugees.

The final point we would like to make concerns another dichotomy present in Streeck’s critique.   Streeck complains about the absence of genuine alternatives to the refugee policy dictated by Germany, and (grudgingly) enforced by the EU, but his own narrative strictly operates on a diametrical opposition between a ‘conservative resistance’ against the refugee policy and ‘the multicultural desires of the liberal-cosmopolitan elements among Social Democrats and the Greens’.  He laments the ‘the absence of an opposition asking uncomfortable questions and thereby laying bare (…) the interests at the bottom of policies presented as humanitarian duties beyond political choice’.  While Streeck is right to call for a greater scrutiny of the understated political and economic aims that underpinned the German policy, he, once again, delivers this point by sacrificing immigrants, refugees and their rights at the altar of economic necessity in the name of ‘German’ working classes.  We should not only resist the temptation to value human life strictly via its worth or relation to the labour market, but also strive to design progressive politics beyond the ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal-cosmopolitan’ binary inherent in Streeck’s account.  As Panagiotis Sotiris forcefully argues, ‘recuperation of sovereignty’ should not ‘necessarily lead to nationalism, ethnic exclusion and racism’.  On the contrary, we should aim to reconfigure democratic politics towards alternative political imaginaries.  A starting point for one such alternative would be, to borrow from Sotiris once again, to reconceptualise the subject of democratic politics within the state as ‘the emerging community of all the people that work, struggle and hope on a particular territory’.  Such a renewed democratic politics would need to take the historical (and colonial) inequalities of race, class and gender in Britain as a starting point for understanding the contemporary politics of immigration.

We fear that Streeck’s insistence on giving prominence to a problematic ‘perception’ of immigrants’ impact on the economy, as well as the way in which he collapses the categorically different figures of ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’ as ‘external’ strains on a ‘host’ economy, could only serve to reinforce the existing hostile climate against immigrants and refugees in Europe.  Streeck’s argument fails to contribute to a progressive solution to what is essentially a crisis with multiple pillars, involving permanent austerity at home and intervention and warfare abroad.

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