What to do with (Eastern) Europeans after Brexit?

Based on an analysis of British mainstream print media coverage between 2006-2013, Dr Denny Pencheva examines how constructive engagement with EU nationals in the UK today is complicated by a history of divisive, racialised rhetoric, and persistent negative stereotyping of Eastern Europeans by the UK press, and argues for a more responsible approach to public debates on immigration, by politicians and the media.

British print media, as well as members of both Labour and the Conservatives have been complicit in scaremongering and vilifying Eastern EU nationals from the onset of the Eastern EU enlargement. Indeed, negative sentiments towards Eastern EU nationals contributed to the decision to leave the EU and to the so-called hard Brexit that has been pursued by successive Conservative governments. Brexit also sought to equalise the treatment of EU and non-EU nationals, and forced all EU nationals in the UK to either apply for settled status or leave.

Many of those EU nationals who chose to stay are now becoming British citizens. In fact, more than a third (37%) of all applications for British citizenship were made by EU nationals according to government data. While necessary in the long-term, engagement with these new constituents is not straightforward because misunderstandings about the nature and limitations of the freedom of movement principle alongside negative stereotypes about Eastern Europeans persist.

Labour is too lax on immigration

The dominant discourse in British mainstream print media for the period 2006-2013 was that neither political party was doing enough to manage and control intra-EU mobility. However, there was a discernible difference in the portrayals of the Labour and Conservative parties. The former were portrayed as being too lax but also as being responsible for the larger-than-expected influx of Polish nationals following the 2004 enlargement round. The Conservatives were presented as willing and capable of being tough on immigration but as being constrained either by the other political parties, or by the European Union.

A key similarity between news outlets from across the political spectrum was that political elites were universally seen to be failing to appreciate public anxieties over the rapid change  induced by intra-EU immigration. The increased inward mobility of Eastern EU nationals was seen to create frictions both within political parties, and between parties and constituents.

Eastern Europeans are stealing jobs

In the early days of the Eastern EU enlargement, Eastern Europeans were not deemed politically or socially problematic; in fact, their high employability and strong work ethic were highly praised by employers, quoted in the examined media materials. However, the pace and scale of intra-EU mobility against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis and the climate of austerity which followed amplified anxieties about wage dumping and unfair labour market competition. Increased levels of intra-EU mobility also exposed existing structural inequalities within British society with Eastern EU workers blamed for undermining the employment opportunities of white working-class people, as well as ethnic minorities. Mainstream media coverage was ripe with divisive, racialised rhetoric, pitting each group against the others.

Despite its many benefits, the freedom of movement also has been characterised by a substantial misunderstanding: politicians as well as media discourses often conflated freedom of movement with the notion of uncontrollable, mass immigration. This misunderstanding blurred the lines between left-wing and right-wing views on economic migration, and contributed to the emotive appeal of the Leave campaign and its success in June 2016.  

“Fair Game” Racism

Mainstream British print media also contended that it’s not racist to be anxious about intra-EU mobility. While neither Labour nor Conservative governments were expressing pro-EU migration views, neither wanted to appear racist. Political and media accusations of “stealing jobs”, unlawfully claiming benefits, and/or partaking in anti-social behaviour came across as “fair game”.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis and after the end of the New Labour era, the political mood was marked by growing Euroscepticism and the desire to move away from the rights-based EU freedom of movement principle and towards a British state-based system of permissions. The long road to Brexit continued to make EU nationals feel anxious, unsettled, and othered. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum and throughout the transition period that ended on 31 December 2020, the levels of xenophobia and hate crimes have escalated and disproportionately targeted Eastern Europeans, as well as European minorities (e.g. Roma people).

The relationship between migration coverage in print media, political rhetoric, and xenophobia is important because it exposes the unsustainability of such racialised and divisive discourses in the long run. Moving forward, it is imperative that both media and political actors develop a more reflective understanding of their responsibility towards the quality of public debates on immigration matters.

Dr Denny Pencheva is a Lecturer in European Politics and Public Policy at UCL’s Department of Political Science.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by Sludge G, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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