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In America And Britain, Immigration At Play In Government Dysfunction


This is a time of profound government dysfunction on both sides of the Atlantic. Here in the U.S., we've been mired for weeks now in the shutdown with Democrats and Republicans unable to agree on how to fund the government. In Britain, they're still tangled up in Brexit, unable to agree on how to extract themselves from the European Union. Sebastian Mallaby joins me from London to talk about the implications of both these stalemates in the U.S. and the U.K. He's a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sebastian Mallaby, welcome to the program.

SEBASTIAN MALLABY: Great to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: When you think about the broader forces that are at play here, immigration is a big factor on both sides. Right here in the U.S., we've seen divisions over immigration and border security becoming the sticking point in funding the government. Where you are, in Britain, a lot of people who voted for Brexit, to leave the EU, said that the main reason that they voted that way was to gain control over their borders.

MALLABY: That's right. It was a combination of resentment of immigration and a vague sense that sovereignty had been diminished. And I guess both of those things apply to the U.S. And along with there is a sort of nostalgic nationalism. So take back control, the U.K. Brexit slogan, reminds me a little bit of make America great again - because again is that nostalgic we used to be great. We're not anymore. We want to get back to where we were.

BLOCK: As I mentioned, you're talking with us from London. How much anxiety is there about what is going to happen? Because there doesn't seem to be a clear way out.

MALLABY: Yeah. There's a lot of anxiety. I think it relates both to the sort of substantive stakes - I mean, there's this sense that if Britain does crash out of the European Union without a deal at the end of March, that means that all kinds of things that one takes for granted - like the ability of aircraft to take off, the ability of medicines to come across the border without being stopped for customs checks - all those things are in question. People are starting to stockpile medication if they have a medical condition that, you know, they're worried they won't be able to get their drugs. And so there's that sort of anxiety.

And then I think it's compounded by the fact that this isn't just a political mess that, you know, you get through it. This is a once-in-a-generation decision to unhook yourself from a deep version of globalization - in other words, connections with the European neighbors.

BLOCK: So much more fundamental about identity. I mean, here in the U.S. ultimately, presumably there will be an end to the shutdown. People will get backpay - at least, some of them will. But there, where you are in Britain, we're talking about a total transformation if this does go through.

MALLABY: Absolutely. I mean, you cross the Rubicon, you leave the European Union, you won't be allowed back in. One of the cartoons in the newspapers today which I think captured the sentiment shows this sort of annoyed cat owner saying to his cat, listen, if I let you out, don't tell me you want to get back in here in five minutes.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

MALLABY: And I think that's very much the sentiment in Brussels - that they're sick and tired of dealing with the Brits who can't decide whether they want to leave, what terms they might want to leave on. And so once leave does happen - barring the outside possibility that it somehow gets derailed - it's going to be very difficult to imagine going back in.

BLOCK: That's Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations talking with us from London.

Sebastian, thank you so much.

MALLABY: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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