Editorial Board

A Better Response to Europe's Populist Right

About the only thing more depressing than the growing popularity of Europe's populist right has been the futile response to it.
Nigel Farage and his party's vision would diminish the U.K. and its partners. Photographer: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

These days in British politics, it's all Nigel Farage, all the time. Farage leads the United Kingdom Independence Party, a leading proponent of the kind of anti-immigration, anti-European Union sentiment that is flourishing not just in the U.K. but across Europe. About the only thing more depressing than the growing popularity of such views has been the futile response to them.

The insularity movement, for lack of a better term, is expected to make big gains in EU parliamentary elections across Europe this month. UKIP's support in Britain, for example, stands at 38 percent. The mainstream parties' responses to its positions have been remarkably incompetent -- a weird combination of tacit concessions and slurs. It's almost as if it were calculated to increase UKIP's support.

The main criticism, much favored by critics on the mainstream left, is to call UKIP racist. The charge isn't unwarranted, because there's a minority of outright bigots in Britain, just as elsewhere, and those voters are bound to support UKIP's call for tighter restrictions on immigration. However, it isn't racist in itself to call for tighter immigration rules. Leaning on the racism slur, while refusing to debate the merits of the EU's radical open-borders approach, is a dishonest evasion.

The U.K.'s mainstream conservatives have put themselves in an even more awkward position. First, they are split over the EU: Many agree with UKIP's view that Britain should quit. Second, they don't like the EU's open-borders approach. The government pledged to cut annual net migration to the "tens of thousands," from a peak of 260,000, and sponsored advertisements advising illegal immigrants to "Go Home or Face Arrest."

This approach concedes UKIP's main point: There is too much immigration, and it is a bad thing. Worse, the government's own policy response has been ineffective: After dipping, U.K. net migration increased sharply in 2013, to 212,000. Farage was triumphant.

A better way to defeat the populist right would start with one concession: The U.K. did botch the introduction of the open-borders system in 2004. In an excess of enthusiasm for the idea, the government removed restrictions on immigration from new EU member states (including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) immediately -- even as Germany, France, Italy and others chose to restrict their borders for a seven-year transition. The result was a vast and conspicuous surge of U.K.-bound migrants.

But that's history. The U.K. is no longer the outlier, and patterns of migration are now more balanced. In addition, even this politically inadvisable surge was, on the whole, to the U.K.'s economic advantage. Study after study has shown that immigrants boost productivity, pay more in taxes than they take in benefits, and help address labor shortages rather than adding to unemployment.

The free movement of labor within the EU is, on balance, an opportunity for its members -- especially for those, such as the U.K., which face the fiscal problems implied by aging populations. The same goes, only more so, for the free movement of goods and services which the EU has secured.

The allure of UKIP and the rest of Europe's populist right is specious. Their vision would diminish the U.K. and its partners in every way. Making this case, admittedly, isn't easy. Accusing the enemy of racism is far less difficult. It's also far less effective. Better to confront Europe's populist right with intelligent arguments on the merits.