Tony Blair: To combat populists, governments need to manage migration

Tony Blair was the prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007.

LONDON — Look around the most advanced liberal democracies today, and you won’t find one untouched by political debate over immigration. It has affected countless governments, produced new parties and political alliances, and divided communities and generations. In the United Kingdom, it was arguably the single biggest factor behind Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year.

This issue is not going away. Technological and economic change mean more people are crossing borders than ever before. Across the developed world, countries are working out how to cope with record increases in the number of international migrants — about 5 million people migrated permanently to OECD nations in 2016, many more than the previous peak in 2007.

Those of us in favor of open, liberal, tolerant societies need to recognize that movement on this scale is creating real challenges for policymakers in established democracies. There can be pressure on services within communities from an influx of migrants or refugees, downward pressure on wages in certain sectors of the economy, and questions of cultural integration — especially when immigrants are from more conservative Muslim backgrounds. And there is anxiety that governments do not properly control who is allowed into the country and who has a right to stay.

I sometimes hear it argued, particularly on the left, that the very act of engaging seriously with those concerns amounts to a form of political surrender and that instead of pandering to people’s anxieties, centrist politicians should make the case more explicitly for the benefits of immigration. This is not just misguided. It is dangerous.

Of course, politicians of all persuasions have an obligation to call out prejudice and fight attempts to use immigration as a means of exploiting fears in order to sow division. However, I do not believe that the majority of public concern about immigration is driven by irrational fear.

When one looks at attitudinal data across Europe, for example, it is clear that many people are not actually anti-immigrant. They understand that their country needs certain categories of migrant workers, particularly the highly skilled. And they’re not indifferent to the plight of refugees. But they believe — not unreasonably — that countries should have the right to control their own borders and that the system is fundamentally not well managed.

In other words, these are legitimate concerns — and progressive politicians have a duty to try to respond to them. The alternative is a vacuum whereby the most prominent voices on immigration are extreme politicians making populist promises that damage trust even further.

The U.K. is a case in point. The Conservative government has, since 2010, based its entire immigration policy around a single numerical target: to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” per year. It is hard to think of a more damaging policy failure in recent years. The government’s consistent inability to meet its own target has damaged the public’s faith in the ability of politicians to manage migration and has ended up skewing public policy priorities.

For example, the U.K. government is in the absurd position of celebrating a rise in emigration and attempting to clamp down on foreign students, simply because they are the easiest category of migration to restrict. Meanwhile, delivering Brexit has become the mechanism for achieving “control” over the U.K.’s borders, even though migration from outside the EU has been higher than EU migration for decades.

There is no future for liberal democracy in pulling up the drawbridge to immigrants. Immigration is vital for the future of our economies and societies. But it needs to be controlled and managed so the system is fair and can command public support.

My institute will shortly be publishing a new paper setting out a pragmatic agenda for immigration policy in the 21st century — one that maximizes economic benefits while securing the widest possible public consent. This is needed to reduce the space for populists to use immigration as a tool to exploit people’s legitimate fears, sow division and delegitimize liberal democratic institutions.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.