It could be said the UK has a certain form when it comes to ‘aliens’; whether it is in turning ourselves into third-country citizens (aliens on our very own continent), the alienation of refugees, or in petulant self-imposed alienation from world-leading scientific programmes.
Let’s start with what’s in plain sight at home where the evidence of the UK’s inability to manage anything remotely complicated successfully without our EU partners comes in ever thicker and faster.
Take a peek at Dover where, after going through British passport control, British passport holders hoping to hop onto a ferry to France have been queuing for up to 14 hours to get a stamp put in their passport by French border control officers.
When we were in the EU, we were all treated as EU ‘citizens’ and deemed to share common values and rights that entitled us to cross all the borders in the EU, including sea borders without getting our passports stamped. We had to queue sometimes, but no one nationality was singled out to go into queues that could not be processed the same day. There is no escaping the fact that Brexit changed all that, no matter what excuses about the weather or ferry companies or the ‘pesky’ French, smirking blame-shifters try to invoke.
Waking up to an alienated reality
So now, as far as most of Europe is concerned, we are third country nationals for EU border control officers and thus assuredly treated just like any other third country national at the border. Since leaving the EU completely, we have to get our passports stamped. This can take an experienced officer 30 seconds per passport even when the computers aren’t down. Multiply that by one coach load, and even with all passports passing muster, significant delays are inevitable.
The degree of difficulty is entirely the choice of the government which rejected generous EU offers, especially where mutual mobility across borders for ordinary people, cultural events and education were concerned. Successive Conservative governments have effectively rendered Brits ‘aliens’ in most of Europe.
Alienating the ‘other’
It took the USA until the Biden administration in 2021 to stop using the term ‘alien’, replacing it with ‘noncitizen’. Generally, the term alien (aside from its associations with science fiction) has been equated with a foreign national. Rafts of legislation littered with the term here and abroad evidence that.
The UK’s first legislation on immigration was the Aliens Act of 1905. Then people could enter without having their passports stamped. The subsequent 1914 Aliens Registration Act provided for ‘aliens’ over 16 to register with the police. ‘Alien officers’ were appointed in 1915 and had to put entry and exit stamps in passports, rather like today.
Employment prospects also influenced immigration controls. The Conservatives introduced the British Nationality Act with more restrictions in 1981. There have been waves of legislation since then. As we see today, some less-than-competent governments – often for electoral gain – create a misleading narrative of a struggle to manage their borders, even when they are able to do so. This was as true for the EU referendum as it is now with the so-called ‘small boats crisis’.
Repugnant and pejorative terminology such as ‘warehousing’ has entered common currency: as in the proposed ‘warehousing’ of asylum seekers on barges or the ‘warehousing’ of disabled people. The US Committee for Refugees and Migrants (USCRI) describes the practice as “keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency – their lives on indefinite hold – in violation of their basic rights under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention”. When exactly did it become morally acceptable to condone the “depersonalisation, victimisation and (im)mobilisation” of the vulnerable? And when exactly did an electorate become disposed to contravening the principles set out in the UN Refugee Convention and breaking international law? Surely this is ‘alien’ to who we are?
Some of the world’s most vulnerable people are dehumanised and declared ‘illegal’ and UK government seems to play into that notion alongside a barrage of rhetoric calling for an end to the human rights laws that might impede their plans. Here we see another more insidious form of alienation – we are being encouraged by certain politicians to abandon our own compassion. History will not record such an era kindly.
Alienated from the cutting edge
Our modern lifestyles depend on collaborative space research and satellites, and this is where things are about to get a lot more complicated and problematic owing to choices made by the UK government in respect of the impact of the recently concluded Windsor framework.
It is tempting to overlook the fact that the Windsor framework is about more than Northern Ireland. It affects the operation of the trade and cooperation agreement and commits us to implementing the Brexit withdrawal agreements constructively. Its framework promotes working with the EU on a whole range of matters in a myriad of committees designed to sort out predictable difficulties before they escalate into avoidable crises. Satellite imagery from Dover shows the consequences of failing to do that.
The problem is that the government needs more than a nudge in the right direction. And if it doesn’t respond, we could find our geostrategic options, wellbeing and future aspirations as leaders in such diverse research fields as space travel, safety and environmental disaster management turning to dust.
De-alienation: rebuilding what Brexit vandalised
The Windsor framework removed the barrier to the UK participating in a number of world-leading research and space programmes we created with our EU partners years ago. This includes Copernicus and Horizon, two of the most significant and important for our wellbeing and security – covering all disciplines and bringing together industry and academic research institutes.
The UK always intended to remain in the satellite programme: Copernicus. Its satellites monitor the earth, observing our environment. They are key to greener futures, and to facilitating the EU’s ambitions for an EU Green Deal.
The UK’s choice to leave Horizon and by extension Copernicus is universally recognised as a grave error but ‘associating’ with the programmes has been used since 2021 as a bargaining stick in respect of getting changes to the arrangements for Northern Ireland. Now that the issue has been concluded, there is no excuse not to do so. The problem is, however, that the UK has not paid what it promised to. It wants its €721mn contributions to the space programme for the 2021–27 period that it had agreed to make in 2021–23 written-off.
It’s a bit like saying to a housebuilder that you want a particular house spec and will pay accordingly, then stomping off until you change your mind and come back demanding the original spec to be heavily discounted to cover your absence.
Eyes to the horizon
The wider problem is that the 2021–2027 space programme was drawn up at a time when the UK agreed on its objectives, so funding to facilitate their realisation was put in place on that basis. Without that, the objectives have to be reined back. That means that the new Copernicus satellites, including the Copernicus anthropogenic carbon dioxide monitoring system to monitor CO2 emissions and designed to assist the EU in reaching the 2050 climate goals, is now severely jeopardised.
The European Space Agency has also warned that all the other Copernicus missions on which effective disaster management and responses to natural disasters depend will be at severe risk unless funding can be sorted out satisfactorily soon. Delaying things until the next funding round for 2028–2034 jeopardises not just the current satellites but Europe’s (and our) security.
No one can win.
Forget the profusion of Brexit-induced disasters, if ever there was a time to acknowledge that our lives are deeply intermeshed with those of Europe and always have been, it is now. Alienation in all its forms leaves us all poorer.