“We hate ourselves too, but we might love you.” These are the humorous and deeply cutting words of a media campaign recently launched by the Romanian newspaper, Gândul, in response to news that the British government is considering the use of advertising to deter Bulgarians and Romanians from entering the UK. Plans include emphasising the drawbacks of life in Britain, of which the frequency of rain is apparently one of the most notable, in the hope that the initiative will ‘correct the impression that the streets here are paved with gold.’ The project comes ahead of the relaxation of laws which will take place in January 2014, lifting labour restrictions and allowing free movement between Romania, Bulgaria and the UK.
Scaremongering which exaggerates and condemns the effects of Eastern Europeans migrating westwards is nothing new, and only one look at the choice of metaphors in newspapers such as The Telegraph is enough to confirm the level of hysteria that sells so well: ‘the new wave’ and ‘sudden influx’ of overseas workers which Britain is simply ‘powerless to stop’ looks set to rob us all of our jobs as they seize what is rightfully ours, even if we do not really want it, with their strict work ethic and hunger for low pay. Sadly, much of the press is awash with this kind of frenzied tidal imagery and a palpable, unfounded arrogance which presents an image of the Balkans that is as patronising as it is farcical.
Romania and Bulgaria have been members of the EU since 2007, and as Sandra Pralong states in The Guardian, ‘most of those who wanted to leave Romania have already done so.’ When polled, only 4 percent of Romanian adults expressed a serious interest in working and living in the UK, whilst in Bulgaria the number of students seeking internships abroad has more than halved over the past few years due to economic improvement. In effect, the government has entirely mishandled a sensitive issue and in the process ripped open a gaping wound in European relations that now, more than ever, demands serious attention.
Huge numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are rightfully and acutely insulted by such a display of Western prejudice and pomposity, and through efforts such as Gândul’s campaign entitled ‘Why don’t you come over?’ a pertinent irony is highlighted: in attempting to restrict immigration by such laughable means, the UK exposes its own need to travel further afield when it comes to intellectual, social and cultural integration. In short, a need to appreciate developments that are not necessarily quantifiable, especially at a time when the world is globalising faster than bigotry allows.
For too long the UK has agreed to ‘integration’ on its own terms, which of course defeats the point and perpetuates national stereotypes at the expense of a cohesive European future. Bulgaria and Romania are not lands replete with goulash and polenta, suitable for cheap student holidays where the developing infrastructure gives a taste ‘of how the other people live,’ but countries which are unique in their political history and fascinating in their cultural, literary and linguistic richness and diversity; just like the UK in fact, except these governments don’t have the money to fund inane PR stunts about it. Never mind the way in which immigration from Eastern Europe helped to bolster the British economy by adding an extra five billion pounds to the GDP last year.
It is time for the self-indulgent pedestal to be disassembled. When the restrictions are removed at the end of this year it must be accompanied by a radical mental reassessment if the origins of the EU are to be honoured, or the ruptures will widen further and create a deepening conflict in the place of cooperation. The focus should now be moved away from what the UK has to offer Eastern Europe, and instead brought back to what the member states are able to offer each other when resources are pooled and interests respected and shared for the long-term benefits of all concerned.