It was well briefed in the media that Theresa May’s first appearance at a UN summit as Prime Minister would involve a firm insistence for greater efforts to control the global refugee crisis. Arguing there need to be different controls for asylum seekers and economic migrants, May used some familiar rhetoric in her address: “We need to be clear that all countries have the right to control their borders”. The message was especially bold when compared with the moving display of life jackets worn by refugees in Parliament Square on the same day.
Putting aside the evident difficulties associated with May’s suggestions, the wider picture should be considered. Nearly three months have passed since the EU referendum and May has been PM for just over two of them, but there has been little public progress made in our negotiations to leave the EU – apart from the repetition of “Brexit means Brexit”. The pressure is already starting to pile in from MPs of all affiliations for clarity on what the Government is going to ask for from the EU, and will swiftly be followed by public clamour for them to get on with the job. And those questions will undoubtedly be led by questions of what can, and will, be done about immigration from the EU.
One thing that has emerged over the summer is greater public understanding of the complexities of the EU and the negotiations the UK is approaching, and importantly that greater control over immigration is intrinsically linked to membership of the Single Market. The President of the European Commission (and arguably the most powerful man in the EU), Jean-Claude Juncker, has affirmed that without compromising on allowing free movement of people, the UK will not retain access to the Single Market and its economic advantages. Although the long-term economic impacts of Brexit are still far from being felt or determined, this is still enough to cause concern for the Government and big business.
This presents May with the dilemma that many campaigning to Remain in the EU knew about all along: it is not certain which side will win in the battle between immigration and the economy, but whichever side loses will not be happy. It is obvious that a great many of the people who chose Leave did so because of linked frustrations over national sovereignty and controlling immigration – “take back control of our borders” undoubtedly resonated with many who had previously disengaged from politics altogether. The increasingly loud public debate over the impracticalities of reducing migration will not alleviate the fears of the 52% who voted to Leave.
So by taking her stance at the UN, May is desperately trying to reassure the 52%. She is throwing her hands up and saying “I have heard you, and I’m working on it, but we knew it wouldn’t be easy from the start”. In addressing the international refugee crisis – despite it having a much smaller impact on the UK than immigration from the EU – she is attempting to produce tangible results for those concerned about it (and perhaps not taking off her Home Secretary hat altogether).
All of which suggests that May and her new government are not expecting success in their EU negotiations anytime soon. May continues to cultivate an image of a politician who will not take any nonsense, but also of one who may have realised that she could be about to be put in her place by her European counterparts – which will not go down well with her electorate.