Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

Brexit, migration, cities - and the UN pact

  • Bristol's directly-elected mayor Marvin Rees. 'Theresa May's arbitrary, unachievable pledge to reduce net migration "to the tens of thousands" gave people an easy but bogus scapegoat for their feelings of economic and social insecurity.' (Photo: Bristol mayor's office)

As Brexit continues to plunge British politics deeper and deeper into crisis, it's worth reflecting on some of the factors that got us into this mess in the first place.

We had the long term trend of an economy delivering inequality rather than inclusive growth.

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We had a growing cynicism towards politics in general and the 'political class' in particular.

We've had national identity crisis with people struggling to define what it means to be British and we've had the disinvestment in public services.

But, in the aftermath of the global recession, David Cameron and Theresa May's arbitrary, unachievable pledge to reduce net migration "to the tens of thousands" gave people an easy but bogus scapegoat for their feelings of economic and social insecurity.

That scapegoat was the people from other EU countries whom freedom of movement allowed to come and fill jobs in British industry, agriculture and public services – where, as we are now discovering, they were sorely needed.

Ukip exploited this public anger, causing panic in the Tory party which Cameron sought to assuage by promising a referendum on EU membership.

And now, amidst the wreckage of that failed gamble, May's only strategy to scrape together a parliamentary majority for her deal is, seemingly, to whip up yet more hostility towards the Europeans who staff our hospitals, schools and businesses, and who contribute hugely to our communities.

But we'd be wrong to think of this as a purely British problem.

Across the pond Donald Trump is trying desperately to keep his base 'energised' by demonising those who seek safety and a better life for their families in the booming US economy.

All round the world, in fact, national politicians have weaponised the issue for their own ends, offering angry words and division instead of leading a constructive debate about the full nature of our challenges or how to manage the movement of people in the 21st century.

EU pattern

So it's not surprising that a handful of nationalist European governments – Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy – have followed Trump's lead in rejecting the UN's carefully negotiated Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which is due to be formally adopted at a global conference in Marrakech next week.

This political game-playing is not only a moral failure on the part of individual national leaders.

It reflect the vulnerability of our wider populations to superficial analysis that leaves the relatively powerless people blaming other relatively powerless people for their problems.

It also reflects a systemic failure in global governance, which undermines genuine efforts to build consensus on how to manage the global movement of people in ways that are fair and beneficial to everyone.

But, while national discourse is full of division and strife, in cities around the world are working for inclusion of migrants, as a new generation of civic leaders finds new ways to do this that benefit both the newcomers and the cities' existing inhabitants.

All over the world, cities are jealously guarding their need and ability to approach concepts of identity and belong in multidimensional and dynamic ways that sit in contract to the stagnant single dimensional ideas that entrap national governments.

These city leaders are producing new ideas and initiatives aimed at enabling migrants to contribute to the societies they have joined, and to win friends within them and in the process build strong societies together.

Mayors and other civic leaders have enormous insight and practical experience to bring to the table.

Here are just a few examples from the UK: in Bristol, our One City Plan is exploring new ways to help refugees use their skills and start businesses.

In London, mayor Sadiq Khan's pioneering Social Integration Strategy is funding efforts to help migrants with young families connect with their neighbours.

And Cardiff is developing a single portal where newcomers can register to learn English.

However, cities can only change things so far in an international system still stuck in a 20th century paradigm which sees nation states as the only significant players in the international system.

It makes sense, therefore, that civic leaders are increasingly working together to advocate for a wider change in which city leaders partner with national and international leaders in shaping the national and international context in which they live.

Bristol was recently proud to host the third summit of the Global Parliament of Mayors, at which city leaders from over 35 different countries pledged to implement the Global Compact on Migration and to form new partnerships with the private sector and international NGOs.

In May, I became the first city leader to speak in the negotiations on the global compact at the UN.

And next week, I'll be in Morocco to see the compact formally adopted.

But I won't simply be observing from the sidelines. I'll be helping to launch the new Mayors Migration Council, an initiative designed to help cities become better advocates for well-managed migration at the international level.

Cities are getting themselves organised as never before.

But to make a real difference on the global stage we need a larger share of power and resources – and that means we need allies: in the private sector, in the NGO world and within national governments themselves.

It's time for all those who want a grown-up debate on migration, such as our ever-more-mobile world demands, to look beyond the nation state and find ways of giving cities a bigger role.

Marvin Rees is the mayor of Bristol, England, and a member of the leadership board of the Mayors Migration Council, which will be launched in Marrakech on 8 December

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