Does anyone in Britain recollect the glory days when the name “Bulgaria” used to motivate rather than scare the UK public? In May 1999, amidst the Kosovo war, prime minister Tony Blair delivered a speech in Sofia calling for a value-based, activist foreign policy. He adorned it with references to his predecessor William Gladstone’s moral indignation over the “Bulgarian horrors” of 1876. It didn’t take long before Bulgaria and Romania, who supported the effort in Kosovo, started membership talks with the European Union.
Now, only fifteen years on, this particular manifestation of “cool Britannia” – as a staunch advocate of EU enlargement – seems an odd relic. Many in Britain's government, media and public are busy pushing Bulgaria, and its Romanian neighbour, back into a box marked “stereotype” and “prejudice”.
Both the Conservatives in government and Labour in opposition berate the 2004 decision to let Poles and other east Europeans enter freely the UK job market. These parties are now united in their resolve to make it as difficult as possible for the hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians expected to set foot in Albion come 1 January 2014. YouGov surveys show that 42% of Britons think it is “of utmost importance” that the current prime minister David Cameron limits migration from the rest of the EU. It is surely related that approximately the same percentage wants the UK out of Europe.
Europe and “benefit tourism”
The British government is rushing through parliament new “draconian” restrictions that withdraw financial aid over a period of three months for those jobless EU arrivals who have never paid work-related tax in the UK. This move amounts to little more than a cheap populism which panders to the widespread view – amplified by many media outlets – that existing EU rules on the free movement of people are an easy route to social benefits.
In reality, existing EU law does not allow member-states’ nationals to access social assistance within their first three months in a destination country. Rather, it is their own countries which pay. To receive unemployment benefits, new arrivals have firdt to make a contribution to the system of the state they settle in. Furthermore, only long-term residents are entitled to benefits. To qualify as such, an arrival – after the initial three-month period – has to prove they are self-sufficient, in employment or self-employed. These are the rules both in Britain and across the union.
Essentially, rather than “milking the system”, EU migrants pay tax and social-security contributions all the way. The notion that, thanks to perfidious Brussels, impoverished Romanians and Bulgarians will swindle their way into the British welfare state is ludicrous.
Why all the fuss?
The public is led to believe Britain is on the verge of a human tide. But projections by groups like MigrationWatch of 50,000 Romanians and Bulgarians turning up each year appear to be overblown. It is crisis-hit southern Europe, not the Balkans, which sends people to the UK these days. Besides, those who wanted to leave Bulgaria and Romania for a better life abroad have already done so. Let's face it: citizens of both countries have had access to Britain since 2007. They could earn a livelihood either as self-employed or upon obtaining a work-permit. Twelve consecutive months on such a licence lead to unlimited access to the labour market. 2014 will simply see the abolition of the work-permits. It is questionable how many additional strawberry-pickers and builders will be heading to the UK. Moreover, Bulgaria and Romania are rapidly ageing societies too so the pool is ever more limited.
So what’s the problem about really? Bulgarians and Romanians – and eastern Europeans in general – have been consistently depicted by the tabloid media as destitute throngs swamping the country intent on living off the British taxpayer. Mainstream politicians have done precious little to confront such stereotypes and, in the Tories’ case, have actually fanned the fire with militant rhetoric. In truth, there is overwhelming evidence that migrants from the EU’s “new member-states” make a net contribution to the British economy. The Economist estimates that they pay in 35% more to the national budget compared to what they receive in services and benefits. And the average Briton is only too happy to have their house redone by a Lithuanian handyman or flirt with the Slovak waiter serving them cappuccino.
Why then have “new Europeans” turned into Britain’s favourite bogeyman? The answer has two parts. The first is that they are a soft, low-cost target. Casting white European migrants as a public problem or even a threat won’t earn you charges of racism nor the public opprobrium that accompanies them. The language used in relation to Bulgarians and Romanians would not be tolerated were it directed at other communities from, say, south Asia. The negative campaign has at its root the unease amongst a majority within the UK regarding immigration. While it is a sacred right for any Briton to settle, as “expat” rather than “migrant”, anywhere in Europe or the wide world, outsiders are not welcome on the island – unless they happen to be Russian oligarchs or sheiks from the Gulf. Yet, a remarkable feature of the UK is the broad consensus in politics and society that racism and exclusion, even if practised, are not acceptable. Let us hope that Bulgarians and Romanians will be amongst the beneficiaries of this “doublethink”.
The second part of the answer is that east Europeans are demonised and scapegoated because of Britain’s tangled and agony-ridden relationship with the EU. David Cameron is being pressed by Eurosceptics in his own party and the rival United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who call for speedy exit from the EU. Cameron sees the tightening of migration controls as a battle worth fighting in Brussels; even if he loses, he would proudly wear the mantle of an unyielding champion of national interest at both the European elections in May 2014 and the parliamentary polls in May 2015.
A time to rethink
The irony is that the free movement of people is at the heart of the single market, which was and is touted as Britain’s most significant contribution to European integration. In a way, Cameron and his home secretary Theresa May, who floated ideas for a cap on EU migrants, are now promising to roll back the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. But the single market, as well as being part of the EU, is essential for Britain’s prosperity. A report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), published in October 2013 – Our Global Future: the business vision for a reformed EU – is only the latest to present the evidence.
Principle and practice are interlinked here. The free flow of goods, services and capital cannot be delinked from the free movement of people, if the market is to function as a level playing-field; cherry-picking breaks EU law and has a distorting effect.
The argument is also about Britain's own core principles and values. Britain should be reminded – and remind itself – that the rule of law and fairness are fundamental to its self-definition. Even if economic hardship and austerity have all but destroyed the spirit of liberal openness dear to Blair (and Gladstone), there is much more to Britishness than xenophobia and introspection. It is time that the country’s political class reconnected to some of the finer aspects of Britain’s rich tradition.
The article first appeared on opendemocracy
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.