The impact on Europe of ‘make-believe’ Britain

Frankly Speaking

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder and Chairman, Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt looks at the likely consequences for the European Union and for the United Kingdom itself of once pragmatic Britons’ retreat from reality


Until Brexit reared its ugly head, the EU’s more far-sighted policy analysts were worrying about relations with a very different Britain. “What will it be like after mid-century”, they asked themselves, “when the UK overtakes Germany to become the EU’s most populous member state?”

Their concerns stemmed from demographic projections of Germany’s shrinkage and the UK’s migration-fuelled growth. ‘Semi-detached’ Britain’s increased economic and political weight would give it more clout to disrupt the EU’s progress towards ever-closer union.

Now it’s looking as if Brexit will resolve that problem. Outside the EU, Britain will no longer be a force to be reckoned with around the negotiating table in the European Council.

The Brexit effect that is the focus of increasingly intense speculation is whether internal strains will lead to the break-up of the four-nation United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and what that might mean for Europe as a whole.

Instead of the UK developing as a Eurosceptic giant inside the EU, England would be left as an isolated rump. In this scenario, the EU would lose the awkward and unruly English but might gain new members who are enthusiastic supporters of closer political and economic integration.

Attitudes to migration are going to determine the UK’s future far more than EU membership

The newcomers would be an independent Scotland, perhaps joined by a breakaway Wales. There’s even talk of the six counties of largely Protestant Ulster ending centuries of conflict by uniting with the island’s Catholic south to form a 32-county united Ireland.

In truth, it is impossible to make plausible predictions thanks to the political maelstrom that is Brexit. But some economic and social projections can be envisaged. The antagonisms unleashed within the UK over Brexit are acting as a smokescreen for the inexorable trends that will transform British society, regardless of whether or not the UK leaves the EU.

Attitudes to migration are going to determine the UK’s future far more than EU membership. The demographic tsunami of ageing, coupled with decades of low birth rates, is sweeping across Britain just as brutally as elsewhere in Europe; perhaps more so because immigration is so toxic politically. It was, after all, the decisive factor in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

By mid-century, Britain’s population of over-65s will have doubled, and the over-85s will have quadrupled. This will of course impose a far greater burden on the UK’s already strained healthcare and social services, but the real challenge will be the dramatic reduction in the active workforce.

To offset the huge expansion of its inactive elderly population, the UK will need twice as many people in work as at present. To maintain the present dependency ratio of 3.5 workers per pensioner, Britain will have to open its doors wider than ever and welcome immigrants at a rate, according to UN calculations, of a million newcomers every year.

Discussion of migration is vexed not just by Brexit but by longstanding prejudices

In today’s political climate, that looks impossible, but the economic arguments for doing so are overwhelming. The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the independent body set up to advise government ministers, has said that without more immigration to boost the workforce and help pay for ageing, public debt will by mid-century increase to ‘Greek levels’.

The OBR says Britain’s presently uncomfortably high debt level of 75% of GDP will soar to 175% within the next four decades. To keep debt to GDP at 75%, net migration must remain at around its present level of a quarter of a million people yearly. If it were to drop to the Conservative party’s long-held target of under 100,000, then Britain’s public debt would rise to 125% of GDP, about the same as in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Some forecasters paint an even darker picture, although this too makes little impact on those UK politicians who refuse to acknowledge that increased migration is the solution to ageing. Discussion of migration is vexed not just by Brexit but by longstanding prejudices. In 1995, when net UK immigration was less than 100,000 people yearly, opinion polls found a two-thirds majority demanding substantial cuts.

The sad conclusion must be that much of British public opinion is ‘in denial’ on these hard facts. Pollsters suggest the consequences of Brexit are being widely ignored or disbelieved, while the impact of ageing and a smaller workforce receives scant media attention. A once-pragmatic and clear-eyed nation is becoming a land of make-believe.

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