Cabinet Minister Baroness Warsi made a half-hearted attempt on BBC Question Time (31 January) to refute the rumour that our government plans to actively discourage Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants from coming to the UK when restrictions are relaxed next year. But it was too late, the horse had already bolted.
Last week the idea crossed the continent in all its arrogant glory and Romanians duly responded with a dollop of humour. 'Half our women look like Kate. The other half, like her sister.' Under the slogan 'We may not like Britain, but you will love Romania. Why don't you come over?' the website gandul invited readers to contribute to a viral poster campaign enticing Brits to sample the delights of Romania. 'We have Dracula, you have David Cameron.' 'Charles bought a house here in 2005. And Harry has never been photographed naked once.' What else could they do? Romanians are used to coming bottom of the European pile. I know, I'm married to one. He lives in Britain, and is often told he 'sounds English' - lucky chap. For those back in Romania, life isn't as straightforward. Common obstacles include a 25% pay cut across the public sector, the lowest wages in the EU, endemic corruption and a shoddy infrastructure. Britain's xenophobic outpouring this week, driven by scaremonger headlines and Tory angst, is just the latest knock for a country that is desperately trying to find its feet.
Romanians are poor, but they are also well educated. It is a toxic mix. Believe it or not most don't want to leave their family, their friends, their culture, they do so because they are frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their homeland. Since the Revolution in 1989 its estimated three million workers have already left Romania. Britain was not their first port of call; more popular destinations include Italy, Germany, France and Spain (before the crash). In the last 20 years young educated Romanians have proved much more adaptable than their nation's sick, struggling economy. That this ex-communist country has already haemorrhaged huge numbers of people - so many, a Romanian politician wanted to pay them to come home - is 'good news' for anxious Brits. There might not be enough willing Romanians left for the predicted flood next year. But, anti-British campaign or not, there will be a trickle.
The idea that we can keep Romanians out by waggling our economic woes at a country where the average salary is scarcely 300 euros per month, (doctors are lucky if they get more than 400 euros) is deeply patronising. Our rain and recession can't argue with basic economics. Romania is broke, limping along on an IMF bailout; Britain is one of the richest countries in the world. Romania is lumbered with no democratic heritage, a mafia style political system and a closed-off communist past; Britain meanwhile boasts the 'Mother of all Parliaments' (and an unelected queen). Young Romanians look to the West not only for a way out but also for experience. How else does a fledgling democracy learn? Isn't that one of the great visions behind the EU?
Surely even Europhobic little Britain wouldn't want to alienate the second largest country in South East Europe? After all there is nothing we like more than hopping about on the military stage and Romania is a good point from which to keep an eye on the unpredictable Balkans (and has proved a willing assistant in Afghanistan and Iraq). It is also the last bastion before that vast, vague and unsettling space left behind by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Not to mention the country's considerable economic potential. Romania boasts the sixth highest density of certified information technology specialists in a world, (Britain doesn't come close), and their plentiful primary resources make them closer to energy self-sufficiency than any European country other than Russia. They are friends worth keeping I would suggest. Indeed, with a bit of EU help Romania might even reclaim its one-time title as the grain basin of Europe. I know Britain's politicians revel in short-termism (the shimmering horizon rarely stretches more than five years into the distance) but surely it is in our interests to stay in with this tenacious, educated people and their extensive rich landmass? Jokes aside, they are quite keen to be friends with us. They speak good English. And I can confirm, their women (the thinnest in Europe), have a certain royal quality.
Tessa Dunlop's memoir To Romania with Love is published by Quartet Books.