In the knowledge that it would be impossible for Britain to have its cake and eat it too (i.e. to fully control immigration whilst being part of the single market) the government has now made clear that they’ve opted for the hard Brexit solution so much favoured by David Davies, Liam Fox and other staunch Brexiteers.
In her speech given at Lancaster House, Prime Minister Theresa May invoked internationalism as the future direction for the UK outside the EU. However, this was rhetorical escapism, a convenient way out of the Brexit empasse for, let's be clear, the kind of internationalism that Mrs. May is advocating is purely based on economic logics, it is driven by the most extreme discourses of the ‘Leave’ campaign and it has very little to do with the cosmopolitan ideal of the common humanity of peoples coming together as nations.
To be sure, like many other political concepts, the notion of internationalism has been appropriated by many different political agendas and it has changed through history referring to different, sometimes opposed, ideologies. What Marx meant by internationalism – solidarity across borders that would unite workers under a common socialist cause – is different from say the American idea of internationalism (as opposed to isolationism) denoting involvement in world affairs in the name of democracy and justice ideals that has shaped much of America's post-war role.
Again, the kind of internationalism that Italian politician and active promoter of the unification of Italy Giuseppe Mazzini had in mind in the 19th century somewhat shares elements of classical liberals Ricardo and Adam Smith, namely that the organisation of statehood and the cooperation between states (whether through trade or political interests) would help the development of democratic institutions and ultimately benefit individuals as they prosper in a peaceful society.
Whilst most of all these interpretations of internationalism engaged with some sense of cosmopolitan brotherhood, they did not have to account for questions of immigration nor did they emerge at a time of increased awareness of global issues and interconnectedness that characterizes our societies. The extent to which we are experiencing migration flows in the 21st century is dramatically different from anything of the past and it has certainly a lot to do with the voices of the ‘left behind’ or the Syrian migrants that Europe has failed to listen to. Nevertheless, appealing to the traditional international order based on border and nation-centric visions of politics is rather problematic. Because, for all the rhetoric of Britain being a ‘truly global’ nation and Britain's history and culture “profoundly internationalist” (euphemism for colonialist), the grand internationalist vision of post-Brexit Britain that Mrs. May projected in her speech relies, on the one hand, on the idea that state-containers regulate immigration flows and, on the other, on striking ‘deals’ with other state-containers. It is important however to stress the weakness of the argument that out-of-the-EU deals are a type of cake that Britain will be able to have and eat too.
Whilst the government might have more leeway in regulating immigration from third countries than from the EU under the current rules, deals with these countries will not and should not be just about money and markets as much as about people too. Take the case of India, a country where Mrs. May recently went on a trade mission, keen to lay the grounds for a post-Brexit agreement. As widely reported, in Delhi the Prime Minister had to face the harsh reality that, as a condition for achieving a trade agreement with India, she would have to allow more Indian citizens to work in the UK and to lift the current restriction on the right of Indian students to stay in the UK after graduation. As Karan Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra beer, commented: “The irony is coming on a trade mission with a view of laying the grounds for a trade agreement with India if Britain leaves the EU, while at the same time continuing to remain unwelcoming towards India when it comes to immigration.” Whilst in her speech she covered the topic of EU immigration, Mrs. May conveniently avoided to mention the issue of immigration in relation to her internationalist vision of Britain. Instead, borrowing the over-used word ‘deal’ from the language of neoliberal Brexiteers, she reveals the hypocrisy of the hard Brexit choice and the fallacy of the argument about Britain fancying itself as an internationalist power.
By framing this choice as the false dichotomy between either participating in the EU project or in an international system, the Prime Minister eschews the immigration issue that part of the British public opinion has been fretting about so much. By swapping Poles or Romanians for Indians or Chinese as the ‘other’ that Britain will be able to control and differentiate itself from, Mrs. May might have sold her vision to some of the audience, but not to me.