King Nigel’s speech: recasting 'us' and 'them'

In the UK political debate, boundaries are being blurred between the two hot topics on the political agenda: migration and the EU. This should be a wake-up call for the 2.7 million European immigrants living and working in the UK, says Nando Sigona.

Written by the government and delivered by the reigning monarch, the Queen's speech sets out the legislative agenda for the year ahead. As expected, David Cameron, the UK Conservative Prime Minister and his coalition government have used this year’s Queen’s speech to offer a quick if rather panicked response to the recent electoral success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which gained 139 council seats in the 2013 local elections.

The speech places immigration firmly at the centre of the political agenda, as if the crisis of the banking system and a poorly performing economy didn’t exist or could be attributed through some rather obscure association to the presence of non-British residents. As Alex Andreou has explained in a comment in the New Statesman, Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, ‘has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties’, providing a comforting but ultimately useless solution to the current crisis at a time when mainstream parties are all perceived as distant, elitist and impermeable to what is happening outside Westminster. What the Queen’s speech did is to legitimate the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric of UKIP as a solution to the crisis, something that the Conservative Party right-wing had failed to achieve until now.

Besides the headline-grabbing statements against illegal migrants, speeding deportation for foreign-born criminals and fighting alleged abuses of the welfare system, the Queen’s speech is underpinned by a wider vision which at the core criminalises migrants and migration to an extent we hadn’t previously observed in recent mainstream British politics. This criminalisation also extends to EU citizens, until recently kept relatively protected from anti-immigration campaigners and politicians. This is with the noticeable exception of Romanians and Bulgarians, whose possible arrival following the lifting of the existing restrictions on access to the job market and welfare system in early 2014 is generating waves of moral panic.

By associating intra-EU mobility more closely to immigration, the Queen’s speech blurs the boundaries between the two hot topics on the political agenda: migration and the EU, and turns the moral panic generated by the arrival and settlement of Romanians and Bulgarians, the ‘new’ Europeans to paraphrase former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, into yet another argument in support of Eurosceptic politics.

As a researcher working on migration, asylum and minority rights for over a decade, I am familiar with the rising criminalisation of asylum seekers in the UK: the use of enforced destitution, dispersal and detention to deter new arrivals and force those no longer entitled to stay to leave the country. Furthermore, I have documented the plight of undocumented children and young people kept in legal limbo, non-deportable and yet excluded from formal citizenship.

As a foreigner myself, an EU citizen who has lived in the UK for the last 12 years, I feel increasingly uncomfortable with the tone and contents of the debate on immigration. I feel more and more part of the population I study, experiencing personally some of the feelings and anxieties that I am used to hearing from the individuals I interview.

Of course, this is not to say that as an Italian I go through the same ordeal as, for example, that of someone seeking asylum in the UK. But I can certainly say that over the last year or so I have felt increasingly more like an immigrant to whom the right to reside in the UK is granted from above (and can be withdrawn if needs be for electoral considerations) than an EU citizen, that is, part of a pan-European political community founded on the principles of freedom of movement and equality among its citizens.

With this realisation came a renewed sense of empathy for those non-EU migrants who on a daily basis have to negotiate or subject key decisions in their personal life to a faceless bureaucrat somewhere in Croydon (i.e. the UK Border Agency’s HQ) who can decide if a marriage is legitimate, if one can go to a funeral back home, or if a non-British father can be with his British partner at the birth of their child in London. For Romanian and Bulgarian migrants the boundary between being an immigrant and an EU citizen has already been blurred for a while, long before the so-called ‘old’ Europeans.

According to the Oxford-based Migration Observatory, data from the 2011 Census suggest that 2.7 million residents of England and Wales were born in other EU countries. About 1.1 million of those (41%) were born in countries which joined the EU in 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) or afterwards (Bulgaria and Romania). The majority of the EU citizens are therefore people like me (and it feels awkward to talk of myself in terms of my nationality): Italians, Germans, Spaniards, French, Greeks etc.

Until recently, one wouldn’t have heard politicians talk about ‘us’ in the same breath with the ‘other’ foreigners, but the economic crisis and a government in search of scapegoats are changing the terms of the debate. This is a wake-up call for many who felt that the tough talk on immigration was never about them, that somehow they were bullet-proofed from attacks by right-wingers and alike. In other words this is a wake-up call for a largely politically invisible population, with no right to vote at general elections, no spokespersons or campaign organisations, but also with rather powerful states behind them and relatively good social positions in British society.

We may realise soon that all mainstream political parties, faced with the challenge of UKIP, may be prepared to sacrifice us for the sake of electoral victory. For if the Queen’s speech marks a further shift towards the right of the political spectrum of the political debate on immigration, the Labour opposition demonstrates once again little will to fight the battle for immigrants and immigrants’ rights, as well as for the EU and EU citizens. The shadow minister Yvette Cooper more often than not attacks the government for not being able to control immigration and borders, as confirmed recently in a major speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). It’s hard to see how these tactical responses may lead to a different strategy and new ways of thinking on migration.

The Queen’s speech has thus contributed to redrawing the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and for some of us this came as a realisation that the position we thought to occupy in British society as fellow EU citizens is gradually being eroded by a dangerous combination of anti-foreigner and anti-EU sentiments. This is happening without much opposition. Times of crisis also bring new opportunities. New spaces for political mobilisation may yet open up and lead to the emergence of new political subjects in British politics: 'old' and 'new' Europeans fighting back.  

About the author

Nando Sigona is Birmingham Fellow at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham, and Research Associate at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests include: irregular and child migration, governance and governmentality of forced migration, Roma politics and anti-Gypsyism in Europe, statelessness, and the intersection between migration, citizenship and belonging. He is one of the founding editors of Migration Studies, a new refereed journal by Oxford University Press due to start publication in Spring 2013. He maintains a personal blog and is active on Twitter @nandosigona.