Whatever happened to the Blighty-bound lads?
Hearsay has been so heavily the crux of London’s panic over the lifting of immigration restrictions on the EU’s neglected duo, Bulgaria and Romania, that one would have been forgiven for feeling mislead, when the new year checked in with the sound of little else than the standard bombastic exercise in pyrotechnics in the heart of the capital. Hearsay is also often platformed for the benefit of diversion.
Nearly a month has passed since the border control floodgates and numbers show fewer Bulgarians and Romanians have come to the shores of Albion in the first month of this year than last.
No invasion cries in strange, Transylvanian-esque dialects, pierced the skies above Brick Lane and no beetroot flags suspended above Covent Garden. Perhaps this sort of image is an exaggeration, but one cannot put it past the scaremongers estimating the arrival of 29 million immigrants from a pair of countries with a total population of just over 27 million, between them.
Not only were the Daily Mail and Telegraph mistaken when they reported on the alleged influx of full flights from the Sofia and Bucharest to London, though even if such was the case, the situation would not be shocking, but merely the same as it is in Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw and Budapest this time of year. Czech airlines has sold out a week of daily flights from Prague to London, during the first seven days of the new year, while the other capitals had one or two, at most, remaining.
Meanwhile Bulgaria Airlines had sold out none of its daily flights to London for the same period of time, while Romania’s Blue Air confirms it is sending half empty planes to the British capital. “We have loads of seats for the next days of January” a spokeswoman said told the Independent, while London still awaited, trembling.
Indeed, both Bulgaria and Romania bring much more to the table in terms of entrepreneurial talent than their infamy for being the ‘poorest’ countries in the EU might suggest. Bulgaria’s unemployment is lower than that of the UK, while Romania has not only almost entirely repaid its national debt in the decades after Ceausescu, but its economy is currently growing by 4%. If Farage and Cameron’s concerns lie with benefit fraud and a decrease in business gumption, numbers suggest they need not lose too much sleep about granting their European neighbors equal working rights.
Ignorance of just how interested Bulgarians and Romanians are in taking advantage of the UK’s benefits system might betray the fact that any vociferous campaign against the two countries is merely a guise for their general dissatisfaction with EU membership on behalf of conservative politicians. Equally however, the average resident in, say, Sofia, expresses little preoccupation with British politics.
The country has seen a year of unrelenting protests against two different governments and had an interim one in between. Currently the largest party is not in government and an unpopular coalition between the Socialist Party, the Turkish-led Movement for Rights and Liberties and the ultranationalists ‘Ataka’ has taken the reigns.
Close to 7, 000 Syrian asylum seekers have arrived in Bulgaria in 2013 alone. Resources have been sparse and friction high. Several clashes with the local population have brought widespread animosity toward refugees and a controversial fence along the historically volatile border with Turkey has been put up. It is understandable the voice of Farage does not quite find traction on the shores of the Black Sea, where people have had little opportunity to mount a free rider offensive on the UK.
Yet the paranoia of UKIP and the dissatisfied Tory backbencher is far from toothless. While the exotic Balkan steppes of Eastern Europe might make good fodder for bashing in Whitehall, as the region’s underdevelopment and marginal political importance mean few comments are harsh enough to unsettle diplomacy, there is collateral damage in this kind of foreign policy.
It is in the fiber of the EU to amalgamate foreign and domestic policy and with… Bulgarians and Romanians already living and working in the UK prior to January 2014, the quaint xenophobia of the Nigel Farages turns an ugly shade of jingo. The constant rhetoric which brands a non-existent Eastern European threat as the latest folk devil, could serve to marginalize those Bulgarians and Romanians, already working or studying in the UK.
One such student at King’s College London admits she has not felt any overwhelming prejudice against her nationality but recalls an instance when her turning down a flirty suitor led to a distressing succession of conversations where she was loutishly told she owed a debt to British society, for the right to live and work in London. ‘He kept telling me I was lucky not to have ended up as a cleaner’ she says. ‘It was very stupid.’
Another London student of Romanian descent, but with dual nationality admits he feels compelled to tone down ties to his Eastern European heritage when applying for internships. ‘They say if you put Romanian or Bulgarian down as a mother tongue, you might as well be telling them not to give you the job’ he says.
Now even by the Spectator’s own admission within a week of the Romani-Bulgarian invasion, or lack thereof, immigration from the two countries ought to be more of a long term concern. In the last two weeks the focus of Tory media has shifted subtly, without the admission of hyperbole over the issue. The fact the main point of discussion on the Conservative agenda is now benefits perhaps betrays the real reason for the right wing onslaught on the minority of EU migrants over Christmas. Rekindling the fear of the job stealing eastern European was an unintelligent segway to begin discuss a soon-to-be recurring theme in the run-in for the next general election – benefits.
Why unintelligent? After all, we have seen the anti Romani-Bulgarian mania get brushed under the carpet in recent weeks. With Nigel Farage’s open invite to Syrian refugees UKIP have largely staved off accusations of racism and Cameron’s company have retained whatever semblance of image they had, intact.
It is troubling to hear, however, that the kind of ignorance to immigration issues on the part of Whitehall and Westminster is being picked up by the British public, not as a throwaway piece of electoral rhetoric, but as a potentially venomous sentiment. Neither Bulgarians nor Romanians in their respective homelands will be much impacted. The new intake is proving negligible, yet it is possibly those who had emigrated without the advantage of lax restrictions or perhaps even EU membership entirely, that will feel the tasteless discrimination already being recorded.
It is too soon to have a verdict on this as less than a month has passed since 31 December, but it remains to be seen whether the Tories will feel any backlash in the polls from the more settled UK residents with dual citizenships come 2015.
What is more, perhaps George Osbourne and David Cameron should ponder on the reason just how realistic their valuation of the British economy is, as it fails to attract the able workforce that would rather take its business to Germany, Denmark or Sweden.
Sometimes a can of worms can be good food for thought.