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Migration and a globalised world

By Tim Potier

I have now left the UK. This is the second time in my life I have done this. I have spent the best part of August at home in Cyprus waiting to catch my flight to Moscow, where I shall be working from now on.

Truthfully, I was sorry to leave London, the city where I was born. I had an extremely happy year there. Advances in communications and information technology will continue to render our world a large village.

More families will be dispersed across countries and continents; those of working age will develop their careers in more than one international centre; and, both government and the law will have to respond to all the challenges that this presents.

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It is therefore of significance that five years ago an important anniversary passed almost entirely unnoticed. In AD 212, the Roman Emperor Caracalla adopted the Constitutio Antoniniana.

This imperial edict conferred, with few exceptions (principally slaves), Roman citizenship on all those living within the territory of the Empire who lacked it.

If you like and with only a limited amount of poetic licence, it represented a kind of single market which the nations of Europe (or at least one of them) are struggling with today.

I mention this Roman constitution not because I want to resurrect the referendum of 2016, but discuss a much wider point. How can advances in communications and technology, coupled with advances in personal aspirations and opportunity, reconcile themselves with the consequent migratory pressures which are already obvious (consider the Mediterranean as but one crossing point) and likely to become even more pronounced during the coming decades?

Until today, since the Early Modern Age, we have been able, neatly, to separate the old world from the new. Once there were new lands to be conquered and settled.

Of course, such proved a catastrophe for native peoples (and/or fauna), now reflected in some of the most highly developed and successful economies on Earth.

The old world, meanwhile, remained at home and prospered from the new trading opportunities that emerged (even if some of these were resorting to practices which an earlier Middle Age had essentially abolished). Now there is no new land to discover or settle, but people and their families still wish to realise their dreams.

I do not believe anyone would doubt that the main factor driving the UK electorate to vote for Brexit last year was immigration. Certainly, Britain had proven to be an irresistible destination for many millions since 2004, if not also beforehand.

There is a limit to how many new arrivals any nation can absorb in a relatively short space of time and, with the benefit of hindsight, governments were slow to react. And then I recall the London I remember as a child. It no longer exists.

The city has changed and changed for good. It has now eclipsed New York as the capital of the world, having benefitted enormously from the vast array of talent it has attracted, and it must be careful during the coming years, whichever government is in charge, not to undo this singular (global) success story.

However, London should provide an example for the rest of the UK, if not much of the rest of the world. Namely, what use in trying to swim against the tide, when you know that human ingenuity will conspire to defeat you?

I do not believe we have realised it yet, but we are privileged to live during one of those occasional historic turning points.Various leaders can cry out, if only to reassure themselves, that walls and barriers will be erected.

The truth is that, even if they try, they will fail. The good news is that the consequent (very) globalised world, small towns besides cities, which will emerge will come as much less of a shock to the young and those yet to be born, than that borne by my generation and those older than me.

Sometimes I recall, with fondness, holding my father’s hand; he wearing his pin-stripe suit and bowler hat; as we would walk down Regent’s Street and the like: only to observe others who looked exactly like him. But, fashion trends apart, these days are now gone, forever.

Citizens are going to have to get used to a situation where a high percentage of the resident population hail either from non-indigenous communities or were born overseas. So, let’s try to adapt to what beckons as best we can.

Tim Potier is Professor of Law at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)

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