Courtesy Reuters

Anger against foreigners in Shepherd's Bush, my slightly seedy neighborhood of West London, is not hard to find. A late-night visit to a convenience store or a kebab shop often presents the spectacle of angry natives -- usually drunk and probably unemployed -- cursing at the lack of fellow countrymen working in the neighborhood. Their language is crude, but their analysis is hard to dispute: the store on my corner has Poles behind the cash registers and Pakistanis sweeping the floors.

Such workers are increasingly becoming targets for xenophobic wrath in the United Kingdom. The ongoing global economic crisis has hit the British employment market hard, with 278,000 native-born workers losing their jobs in the last year. At the same time, jobs for foreign-born workers rose by 214,000, and immigrants now represent nearly 15 percent of all workers in the United Kingdom. Many sectors, particularly the very visible construction trade, are dominated by foreign labor. This January, the revelation that the builders of a refinery in Lincolnshire had refused to consider British workers, instead hiring only Italian and Portuguese applicants, spawned a wave of wildcat refinery strikes across the country and blockades of power stations by outraged British energy workers. The famously anti-European British tabloid press decries the invasion of foreign labor and insists that Prime Minister Gordon Brown make good on his 2007 promise to find "British jobs for every British worker," even if that means reserving jobs for British workers.

Blaming foreigners for hard economic times is hardly a new phenomenon, even in ultra-cosmopolitan London. The United Kingdom, like much of Europe, has a long tradition of importing workers during good times and then struggling to respond to popular demands to send them home during downturns. This current recession, however, offers an additional complication: the single European labor market. A series of EU rules that have slowly come into place over the last 20 years now mean that the national governments of EU member states cannot make laws that discriminate against workers from other EU countries. Back in 2004, when ten countries (including eight from Eastern Europe) joined the EU, existing member states had the option of taking up to seven years to adopt a nondiscrimination policy against workers from the new member states. But Britain as well as Ireland and Sweden -- which all faced domestic labor shortages at the time -- chose to accept laborers from those countries immediately. Now there is no going back. During the boom years, workers from Eastern Europe, who were barred from countries such as Italy, France, and Germany, flocked to London, and many still continue to follow their friends and relatives to the United Kingdom. The result is that a neighborhood such as Shepherd's Bush is now a good place to find Polish delicacies and a bad place to find a plumber fluent in English. 

Unlike the United Kingdom, most other EU countries have opened very slowly to labor from the East and thus do not yet have many intra-EU migrants in their labor forces, making the situation in the United Kingdom fairly specific. In most other EU countries, rage toward immigrants remains focused on workers who come from outside the EU -- Turkish guest workers in Germany, for example, or North African immigrants in France -- against whom national politicians are relatively free to discriminate.

The dilemma facing the United Kingdom does, however, parallel similar problems that other EU countries are having with the rules of the common market. The national governments of France and Italy, for instance, want to channel state subsidies to support national companies in strategic industries, a serious challenge to EU competition rules. In six EU countries -- Ireland, France, Greece, Latvia, Malta, and Spain -- national governments breached EU rules by allowing their budget deficits to exceed three percent of GDP, the limit set as part of the movement toward a single European currency. The European Commission is instituting legal proceedings against five of them, and it forecasts that by next year 16 of the 27 member states will exceed the limit. Across the EU, governments are trying to insert "buy national" provisions into their bank and industrial bailouts or simply urging consumers to "buy local." Although such actions violate the spirit and often the letter of common market rules, they are a necessary political concession to assure constituents that their tax money won't be spent creating jobs in other EU countries.

This resistance to EU common-market rules is evidence of a deeper problem -- namely, the absence of a European identity. New Yorkers do not complain that workers from Michigan are taking their jobs or driving down their wages. But many Londoners and Parisians view Polish plumbers as a foreign threat to national prosperity. 

The EU has tried for decades to create a sense of continental solidarity that might underpin the single European market in hard times. It now has a flag, an anthem, and a celebrated new Internet domain (.eu). In 2005, European leaders even attempted to establish a constitution. But as the decisive rejection of the constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands showed -- and as seen in reactions to the economic downturn throughout Europe -- bureaucrats in Brussels have not managed to create much of a sense of European identity. For the most part, European public opinion remains resolutely national in its outlook. 

Europe, then, has a single market without a single identity, which means that people who feel little communal tie to one another are now legally bound together in a seamless economic community. This situation creates a political paradox, which in a serious recession, acts to constrain leaders such as Gordon Brown, who faces calls from the British public to protect it against foreign threats but is no longer legally allowed even to acknowledge those threats as foreign, let alone satisfy the demands for protection. When a head of state does attempt to accommodate a frightened public -- such as when French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that French car companies would have to bring their factories back to France as a condition of an auto-industry bailout -- these efforts are quickly met with moralistic rebukes from other European states, public lectures from Brussels bureaucrats, and in some cases, legal proceedings from the European Commission. 

Although EU rules may help to prevent counterproductive protectionism, one has to believe that, in the end, democratic politics will bend to popular will. In Britain, anger against migration is growing and, for the first time, is focusing more on intra-European migrant labor than on workers from former imperial domains. The resolutely Euro-skeptical Tory party is expected to win next year's general election, a prediction made more certain with each outburst of anger against European workers. If the economic downturn continues and the Tories do emerge victorious, they will probably use their mandate to call into question much of what the EU has built in recent years. In that case, many other European countries that are trying to cope with similar political dilemmas may follow the British lead in abandoning single-market restrictions. The greatest experiment in history of creating a single market larger than the nation-state may be at risk because it contains too many foreigners. 

 

  • JEREMY SHAPIRO is Director of Research at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
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