On the march in Copenhagen

The atmosphere on the streets was the antithesis of the gloom inside the centre

Panda bears with flames coming out of their heads, flying blue dragons, the usual rake of tree-hugging environmentalists and an inordinate number of polar bears took to the streets of Copenhagen today. Estimated at 100,000 strong, the march set off towards the Bella Centre, the venue for the UN's COP15 climate summit, at 2pm today. There they'll greet world leaders and give them a piece of their mind, irrespective that no one of note has shown up yet.

Suited up like Robocop, the Danish police are huge and ready to take on any climate heros, but so far they have been left with very little to do. Since an early ruckus in which 400 people -- part of a peripheral march by the anarchist group "Never Trust a Cop" -- were arrested, the march has been overwhelmingly peaceful.

At 1pm speakers greeted the crowd outside Copenhagen Town Hall. The usual rhetoric and a guest appearance by the new climate poster girl Helena Christensen left me withering and cynical in the cold. But the spirit is there and the atmosphere is a positive antithesis to the doom, gloom and general angst among those inside the centre.

Whether organisers planned this march in protest or solidarity with COP15 is hard to tell. Their demands are vague. They are calling for "climate justice" and "a legally binding agreement". But they don't talk about numbers, and they avoid the kind of contentious debate over targets that has already caused drastic divisions within the conference.

The crowd is diverse and illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of this summit. Here, for the first time, environmental action groups have come together with development agencies to acknowledge the threat of climate change to human lives. It is no longer just a movement of the green elite, a luxury guilt that only rich nations can afford. References to the human effects of climate change are ubiquitous. As Naomi Klein said yesterday, this conference is about "people, not polar bears".

As the first seven days round up, it's clear that this first week was all about the little guys -- letting small island states and the less significant developing countries have their voices heard before China, the US and the EU fly in and bang up a deal. Whatever influence figures such as Sudan's Lumumba Di-Aping might have felt in the past six days (speaking out against the leaked "Danish text") will be obliterated once the real bargaining begins. What could prove significant, however, are the alliances that smaller nations have had the chance to make, if these can withstand the bargaining tactics of the greater powers. These tactics are the kind that stopped the Philippines negotiator and "dragon woman" Bernarditas Muller from joining her country's delegation at the summit.

But then this kind of cynicism has no place here on the streets of "Hopenhagen", and I have to get back to the march. After all, a bit of positive people action can't do any harm.

 

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.