As the end of the year approaches, the big question on every editor's desk (e.g. BBC Panorama, ITV News, Five News, and every single national newsletter) and in every politician's mind is: 'Will the Romanians and Bulgarians migrate en masse to the UK in 2014?'. The issue is so burning that the betting agencies should start taking bets on the number of people from the two A2 countries who will end up in Britain next year. However, no one is keener on gambling on the immigration issue than the British politicians.
A month before the restrictions on the Romanians' and Bulgarians' access to the UK labour market expire, Prime-Minister David Cameron used this opportunity to put forward a set of measures meant to discourage cross-border movement from continental Europe. Although he was originally planning for the measure to take effect around the middle of next year, Cameron announced on Wednesday that he decided to 'accelerate' the process. These new policies have been much criticised by both opponents of immigration and supporters of the EU. The former believe that the measures do not go far enough in discouraging EU migration; meanwhile, the latter argue restrictive measures threaten the freedom of movement of people within the EU, one of the four fundamental principles of the EU treaty.
Alongside these policies, what grabbed my attention was the timing and the channels (article in the FT) chosen to make them public. In all honesty, the measures are mere hot air as most of them already exist in law so it's not like these measures are radical. The delivery tone and manner make them seem radical. Consequently, they will have no impact on the flux of new migrants who choose to come to the UK for work. But the Government relies on the general public's ignorance. If the number of Romanians and Bulgarians will eventually be low, the Government will want to take centre stage by falsely proclaiming that the reduced migration would have been a result of their measures. So, the timing and the delivery method of these new immigration policies are just as conspicuous as the policies themselves. When asked by BBC's Nick Robinson: 'Why now?, Cameron's reply was that: 'It took time to change the situation around'.
How times have changed! In less than a year, a country known as tolerant and open for business is now putting forth policy proposals which caused the EU Commissioner to warn that Britain risks becoming the 'nasty' country. Although I do not think the UK is a 'nasty' country, its social ethos has changed since immigration became the central issue of political debate and media coverage.
Most people assume the immigration issue has been UKIP's winning hand in the political game. Nevertheless, it was the Conservatives who played it first. On 13 January 2013, Eric Pickles was sent on the Sunday's Politics Show to warn that an 'influx of Romanians and Bulgarians' will increase the already existing social problems in the UK in 2014. He opened a can of worms which are still lurking around as the fallout for Romanian and Bulgarians has been significant.
Since January the citizens of these two nations have been constantly targeted in a defamatory way by both the British media and the politicians. The alarmist discourses have not been limited only to tabloid papers; they have repeatedly made the headlines in all the major nationals and have been the main discussion on many talk-shows and public affairs programmes. More recently, Boris Johnson, who proclaims himself as the only pro-immigration British politician, has paradoxically made a jibe claiming that the whole population of Transylvania will settle their tents in Marble Arch in 2014. Romanians and Bulgarians have been called many names and accused of many things in the last year and it would be easy to say that politicians are simply reflecting the sentiment of the general public towards Romanians and Bulgarians. If fact, however, they are directly responsible for creating a hostile and intolerant environment that serves British interests poorly.
My question still remains. Why has the British Government taken eleven months to come up with a set of measures and in the meantime allowed anti-immigration feelings and rhetoric to drip-feed into the public language and consciousness? Over the last year I heard numerous examples of prejudice against Romanians. This had very rarely been the case before January this year. Although a report published on Tuesday by British Future showed that almost 80% of the British citizens would welcome Romanians and Bulgarians as long as they work hard and pay taxes, the reality is so strikingly different. The Romanian Ambassador, Dr Ion Jinga, has written how the changes in the public opinion have drastically affected even highly-skilled Romanians living in the UK. Not long ago a friend who was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford went on £21 tour of Blenheim Palace only to be asked by the tour guide, when he heard she was from Romania, if she came on reconnaissance for next year. Little did that guide know that the Romanian woman he mocked was awarded the European Citizen Award by the European Parliament later in the year.
The current Government under the Tories' leadership played the immigration card in what they thought was a cunning game to get more votes, all the while never taking any concrete political decisions. One can understand their reluctance to take action as numerous evidence-based reports show that intra-EU immigration has an overall positive impact on society, including the report commissioned by the Government. This report has not been made public because its results were seen as being too positive towards immigration. Moreover, for the Tories in particular, the drive to highlight immigration has not brought any significant movement in the polls. They are none more popular, despite their year-long campaign in which they over-used the claim 'We hear your concerns' in each of their anti-immigration diatribes. They have failed to gain the British public's vote of confidence. Nevertheless, the collateral damage the Tories have caused along the way is potentially far greater and it can have long-term social repercussions.
David Cameron, the former PR man, wanted his newly-announced set of measures restricting EU citizens' access to the UK's welfare system to position him at the forefront of political engagement at home and as the spearhead of the EU's reform abroad. His policies have certainly created an earthquake felt in Brussels and in Eastern Europe. The earth-shaking factor is not a matter of substance, however, but of perception. What David Cameron perceives as immigration, the European Union calls freedom of movement. As one of the main pillars on which the Single Market stands, respecting this right is not an act of goodwill the UK offers to the Romanians and Bulgarians from January 2014, or to any other European citizen. It is an obligation of each member state of the European Union. One cannot be part of the European Union and benefit from the transnational free movement of capital, services and goods (since Romania joined the EU in 2007, the UK firms doubled their business there to £5.2bn), but seek to keep people within their own borders.
Time will tell if Cameron's tough talk will enable him to reach his personal goals both at home and abroad, though he is playing a dangerous game. At home, this episode might serve to radically shift the social thinking and ethos of British society vis-à-vis Europe, eventually leading to an EU exit which even most Tories still do not want. Further, the EU will not easily give in and allow Cameron to tamper with one of its core principles, leaving Britain ever more isolated as the malcontent of Europe with diminished clout and stature. With the European elections next year and the general elections in sixteen months, it will not be long before we will find out how Britain's gamble on Europe will play out, but what has been done over the past year by grandstanding politicians will likely have negative consequences for years to come.