OXFORD–As it has for over 500 years, the Magdalene College Choir sang the Hymnus Eucharisticus from a tower high above this university town on the first day of May, followed incongruously by a dirty Elizabethan ditty about nymphs in Spring. An Anglican vicar blessed the bedraggled revellers crowding the surrounding streets. Most of them had tippled through the night.
Undergraduates for centuries celebrated May Morning by jumping off Magdalene Bridge into the shallow and frigid River Cherwell, but this year police barriers made the stream inacessible. Risk aversion has trumped tradition even in Oxford, once the last redoubt of British bloodymindedness. Whether one thinks the British Empire organized rapacity (mostly) or a civilizing influence (occasionally) or both (mainly), the men who made it evinced a madcap daring. The once-adventurous British no longer wish to leap into the unknown, except perhaps in the fantasy world of Harry Potter.
For the same reason, Britain will vote to remain in the European Union on June 23. The annoyance of remaining in Europe is not too onerous to bear, and the risk of something going pear-shaped during a British exit (“Brexit”) is incalculable. Besides, Europe is gradually falling apart on its own, which means that the British have no urgent need to exit at the moment.
Stick around long enough, alas, and you turn into a theme park: the Oxford faculty recalls the last Spartan hoplites oiling their hair, playing their flutes and drilling in phalanx for Roman tourists at the end of the first century. Oxford is the world’s prettiest university town and a tourist destination par excellence, with dons and students substituting for the cartoon characters who greet the guests at Disney World.
Oxford today is all overpaying foreign students and bewildered Britons with middle-class accents. The accents are the giveaway: absorbing the clipped consonants and plummy vowels of the academic dialect was half the reason to go down to Oxford, the hallmark of acculturation into the British elite. Oxford itself is divided quaintly into thirty colleges, which range in order of poshness from Balliol to Ruskin and in braininess from Merton to Pembroke. Students meet weekly with a tutor and otherwise are left to their own devices. That is the mode of learning most easily replaced by Internet communication and the digitization of libraries, but such is Oxford’s residual cachet that inertia will carry it forward for another century.
The barbarians have not conquered it so much as infiltrated, as in the late Roman Empire. Oxford’s faculty still speak the King’s English and strike grand poses, but their grandeur is redolent of caricature. The end of empire spelled the end of the British elite, that is, the Mandarin caste of civil servants and military men who played Great Games and fought Britain’s wars. Almost nothing is left of the British merchant banks who once dominated world finance. As the victors in two World Wars, Britons are the only Western Europeans still ready to fight, as they did effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Britain’s military and political role is too withered to support an elite caste.
The impulse to leave Europe comes from the British working class, which is dismayed at the flood of immigrants from poor Eastern European countries. Free movement of labor within the European Community has benefitted Britain by attracting entrepreneurs and innovators from the stodgy economies of the European continent.
A 2014 New York Times feature entitled “Au Revoir, Entrepreneurs,” quoted a French transplant to London who heads a Google enterprise saying that in the UK, “it’s not considered bad if you have failed,” Mr. Vidra said. “You learn from failure in order to maximize success. Things are different in France. There is a fear of failure. If you fail, it’s like the ultimate shame. In London, there’s this can-do attitude, and a sense that anything’s possible. If you make an error, you can get up again.”
Starting in January 2014, though, the accession to the EU of Bulgaria and Romania, two of Europe’s poorest countries, produced a flood of migrants to Britain under European rules allowing free movement of labor. 172,000 Bulgarians and Romanians were working in Britain in early 2014, and more than 100,000 new workers entered Britain during the year ended September 2015 (the “Other” category” in the chart below).
That is the biggest British gripe by far: of the 323,000 net immigrants to the UK during the past year, about 110,000 came from poor countries and compete with Britons for jobs at the bottom of the pay scale. Fewer than 10,000 came from the Middle East and Central Asia.
This is an annoyance but not an existential threat. Britain is less concerned with the prospect of future immigration from Eastern Europe, whose declining population will produce fewer migrants in the future, than it is with the implications of mass migration of Muslims into Europe during the past year. If Germany grants citizenship to the more than 1 million migrants who arrived during the past year and the millions who may arrive in the future, they will have the same right to work in the UK as they do in Germany.
By the same token, Britain is less concerned about the meddling of the hyperactive regulators of the European Commission in Brussels than it is about what may come next. The Euro-topians of Brussels want a common fiscal policy and “burden-sharing” of financial problems in the weaker European Community states. Today Britain’s net payment to the EC is just 0.5% of GDP, a minor annoyance. But if the richer and more successful European countries are required to bail out the feckless economies of Mediterranean Europe, the reckoning will be enormous.
Almost certainly, it won’t come to this. The political reaction against mass immigration on the European continent makes it unlikely that the migrant flow will ever cross the English Channel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed mass immigration from the Middle East and Africa, is backtracking. Austria is almost certain to elect a president from the right-wing anti-immigrant party. And in France, the National Front commands at least 40% of the national vote against a socialist president with a 14% popularity rating and a weak opposition.
As for fiscal burden-sharing, Germany will veto any more calls on its long-suffering taxpayers to bail out feckless governments elsewhere.
Europe itself is something of a Ponzi scheme. Wealth per adult is about $270,000 in France and $216,000 in Italy, compared to$196,000 in Britain and only $161,000 in Germany. There are questions about the calculation: the French own their houses and the Germans rent, for example, but someone owns the German houses and their wealth is factored into the total. Germany has a pay-as-you-go national pension plan while France and Italy have pension funds, but the Germans also are great savers. The fact remains that the citizens of countries with huge fiscal deficits and alarming levels of national debt are richer than the citizens of Germany and Britain. The reason for this is that the elites of France and Italy are adept at looting the state and enriching themselves.
A wealth tax as proposed by Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps would correct the fiscal problems of Italy and France overnight (in Greece, the parasites have killed the host). The French and Italians will do no such thing, because the entire purpose of the exercise is to loot the state to enrich individuals.
The Germans know this and have had enough. They will kill any attempt to introduce what is politely called fiscal burden-sharing, that is, bailing out other countries’ Ponzi schemes, while their neighbors will oppose the Germans’ inclination to open the floodgates to Muslim and African immigration in order to assuage their residual war guilt.
Europe, in a word, is paralyzed, and the British have less to fear from the rampaging bureaucrats of Brussels than it might seem. They have every reason to leave the European Union and negotiate separate trade deals with the European countries. Measurable damage to the British economy probably could be avoided, but “probably” is a loaded word. Britain’s elite young students no longer hurl themselves into the Cherwell on May Morning, and Britain’s voters probably will not take the plunge on June 23.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times,