The retreat from openness

by Bill Emmott on January 30, 2017 at 3:36 pm in: Openness, United States
by Bill Emmott on January 30, 2017 at 3:36 pm in: Openness, United States

There can be no doubt that the Wake Up Foundation and President Donald J. Trump have rather different ideas about the virtues of openness, as he has shown through the executive orders he has issued during his first week in office. By his desire to build a wall along the border with Mexico – and why not do the same along the Canadian border? – and above all his suspension of the US refugee programme and of entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries he has shown that he considers openness a weakness, not a strength.

​We disagree. In our view, openness has been one of the key ingredients of western success. The West has prospered, socially, politically and economically, by embracing open trade, the free flow of ideas both scientific and social, and indeed the free flow of people, ie immigration. Indeed, no country has prospered more thanks to immigration than the United States of America. The protests by technology companies about Trump’s new controls make the point clearly: migrants are valued as people carrying ideas and skills across borders.

​President Trump is not, however, the only political figure expressing scepticism about openness. His executive order has been condemned by many European leaders, including, belatedly, Britain’s prime minister Theresa May, but it received praise from such as Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s current leader, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party which is presently topping the polls in that country, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing Front National party.

​Does this mean that only populists and extremists are opposed to openness? Far from it. The Wake Up 2050 Index’s champion country for 2016, Switzerland, is outstanding in terms of the resilience of its democratic institutions, its knowledge and innovation, but is weaker on openness. Thanks to a 2014 referendum, the country has been puzzling about how to put limits on its openness to the free movement of EU citizens without harming its trade relations with the European Union.

​Switzerland is at least struggling with the issue of immigration well after having opened up its borders: now, more than 24% of the Swiss population is foreign-born, compared with levels in the US, Britain, France and Germany that vary between 13-16%. Its federal Parliament decided in December to water down mooted controls so as to be able to maintain participation in the EU single market. It thus chose to risk its own right-wing anti-immigrant group, the Swiss Peoples Party, gaining votes as a result. Its decision is therefore rather different to Britain’s.

​Theresa May has, as mentioned earlier, distanced herself from President Trump’s selective immigration ban. She is presenting her vision of post-Brexit Britain as being both global and open. However this is disingenuous. Her vision of Britain’s negotiation to leave the EU gives priority to her interpretation of the 2016 referendum result as having mandated her government to impose controls on immigration from the EU, at the price of what Martin Sandbu, economics columnist at the Financial Times has accurately described as an “act of protectionist vandalism”, being the decision that Britain must leave the EU’s single market and its customs union and instead impose new laws and customs procedures for trade with Britain.

​Openness is therefore in retreat – even in the countries that historically have boasted most loudly about being open, namely the United States and Britain. The real reason why the British government is criticizing Trump’s immigration ban is that it violates both the rule of law and international treaties, notably the obligation America and others have taken on to give safe haven to legitimate refugees. That agreement was intended to prevent any repeat of the tragic events of the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were denied entry to several countries, including both Britain and the US.

​It is shocking that Donald Trump, who previously in his own tweets has asked “are we living in Nazi Germany?”, should violate that agreement on refugees. But this is likely to be only the beginning of the retreat from openness, both in immigration and trade. Britain may claim it is staying open. But the signs are that it is not.

By Bill Emmott