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xen·o·pho·bi·a: n. [Greek xenos, foreign + phobia] fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners.
Great Britain’s now-pending exit from the European Union has produced a huge flood of public opinion and outcry. In this short series of essays, though, we’ll step back from the immediate political and economic consequences to take a look at the broader concepts behind that Union; examine the underlying causes of such a headline-generating international break-up; and search for the global ramifications over the long term.
For those who haven’t followed the development of the European Union—what Winston Churchill famously called “The United States of Europe”—here’s a brief glance at the historical facts. The extreme, virulent and catastrophic nationalism, xenophobia and genocide of World War II convinced the postwar leaders of Europe that a united confederation of the continent’s nations would help stop the future devastation another war would wreak on European civilization. Longtime enemies France and Germany led the way. Toward that end, in 1948 the Hague Congress formed the “EMI”—the European Movement International—the first predecessor to the EU. After entering into a series of intermediate labor and trade-related treaties, the nations of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which created the European Economic Community (EEC). Sixteen years later in 1973, the original six founding countries of the EEC were joined by Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. By the time of the creation of The European Union itself, formally established in 1993 by the Maastricht Treaty, fifteen countries had become official members. Their vision: a united European federation, without the old borders and the old hatreds, designed, in the words of one founding member, to “make war unthinkable and materially impossible.”
Now, though, the UK has voted to leave the EU.
Many factors—economic, political and social—converged to make the so-called “Brexit” vote possible in the United Kingdom. Analysts, pollsters and scholars from many different parts of the political spectrum, however, have identified one single major determinant in the narrow victory for the “Leave” campaign: immigration.
To understand how immigration policy has managed to have such an impact on the UK’s voters, let’s review. Prior to the EU’s establishment in 1993, net in-migration to Great Britain remained historically quite minimal, with less than 100,000 people annually entering a country of more than 50 million. The UK’s highly restrictive immigration policies kept that number very low.
But the EU changed things. Beginning in 1993, when the EU’s rules went into effect, membership in the European Union meant that member states could not bar immigration from other member states, as they had in the past. Instead of a collection of completely sovereign countries with their own borders and varying immigration policies, the EU really did take Churchill’s advice and make European countries more like the federated states in the United States—at least where trade, the economy and migration were concerned. With one EU passport and no major border restrictions, EU citizens could move across nations just as readily as Americans could move from Alabama to California.
As a result, Oxford University researchers found, the foreign-born population of the UK expanded rapidly, growing from 3.8 million in 1993 to 8.3 million in 2014. Not all of that in-migration came from other EU nations—in fact, most came from India and Pakistan, traditionally the UK’s largest cohort of foreign-born citizens. Also, the post-communist expansion of the EU by “accessioning” former Eastern Bloc nations resulted in many poor migrants landing in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Poland, for example, quickly became the second-largest source of UK in-migration.
As a result, British society began to look much more diverse, and public sentiment in some quarters began to turn. Those factors and the 2008 global recession soon produced a parochial, anti-immigrant mood in the UK, which then became increasingly xenophobic. In the past two decades, levels of British concern about “immigration and race relations” has soared from barely registering on any public poll to approximately 45 percent. Large, growing voting populations in not only the UK but in other EU countries like France and Germany starting demanding lower immigration levels, along with less “control” from the EU government in Brussels. Anti-immigrant political demagogues in western nations, including many outside the EU, have drawn increasing numbers of votes by promising to keep immigrants out. As immigration grows, it seems, so does the backlash.
This kind of xenophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice, especially when exploited by ambitious and unscrupulous politicians, can result in national referendums like the Brexit vote. Think about it: a majority of UK citizens actually voted to risk economic insecurity and recession to stop immigration.
Baha’is believe that this kind of unthinking prejudice and fear—the very definition of xenophobia—has no place in the modern world. The Baha’i teachings call for an end to all xenophobia, nativism, foreignness and fear:
O peoples of the world! The Sun of Truth hath risen to illumine the whole earth, and to spiritualize the community of man. Laudable are the results and the fruits thereof, abundant the holy evidences deriving from this grace. This is mercy unalloyed and purest bounty; it is light for the world and all its peoples; it is harmony and fellowship, and love and solidarity; indeed it is compassion and unity, and the end of foreignness; it is the being at one, in complete dignity and freedom, with all on earth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 1.
In light of this fundamental, bedrock Baha’i principle, let’s dedicate the upcoming essays in this series to exploring what it would take, given the xenophobia and prejudice so rampant in today’s societies, to truly “spiritualize the community of man.”
Next: Globalization: Welcome to the New World Order