David Cameron's View of Bulgarians as Benefit Tourists Is Way Off the Mark
by Ivan Krastev
In the film Casablanca, a youthful, innocent and newly married Bulgarian woman approaches Rick (Humphrey Bogart) begging for help to get an exit visa for the US. She is ready to do everything, only to escape from her own country. Perhaps Casablanca was a formative film for David Cameron, who in an interview earlier this month claimed that Britain is threatened by a wave of "benefits tourists" from Europe whose only ambition is to come and abuse the British welfare system.
David Cameron never explicitly mentioned Bulgaria or Romania by name in his interview with Andrew Marr, but it was pretty obvious whom he was talking about given that the spotlight will be increasingly on those two countries in the coming months. His position, he made it clear, was that only working immigrants should be allowed in the country, even if it means undermining the EU's key principle of "freedom of movement".
As a Bulgarian, I cannot speak for Romanians. But let us see how realistic Cameron's fear is that opening of the labour market to people from my home country will result in an influx of benefits-seekers.
A study of Bulgarian labour migration conducted last year by Sofia's Open Society Institute would indicate that the prime minister's fears are vastly exaggerated. Bulgaria is a small country and not in as desperate a state as many claim. As few British commentators seem to be aware, the biggest wave of emigration from Bulgaria took place in the 1990s, before the country joined the EU. Since EU accession in 2007, labour migration has actually declined. It is true that Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU, our politics messy and the judicial system dysfunctional, but it is also true that the country was less hurt by the current financial crisis than most of its neighbours.
When it comes to some of the key macro-economic indicators, the UK should envy Bulgaria, and not the other way round. If we compare public debt as a percentage of GDP, the UK is three times more indebted than Bulgaria and Britain's public deficit is much higher. Unemployment in Bulgaria is higher than in Britain: 12.4% versus 7.8%, but the difference is not so striking, especially if we compare it with unemployment in most of the other southern members of the union: take Spain and Greece. So, if unemployment in EU member states raises fears, Britain should fear Greeks and Spaniards, and not Bulgarians.
The Open Society Institute's study also shows that restrictions on the labour market have not played a significant role in shaping immigrants' choice of destination. Bulgarians were mostly likely to emigrate to Spain – a country that has opened its labour market – and to Germany – a country where those restrictions stayed in place. Statistics indicate that Bulgarians (including Bulgarian Roma) were not involved in what Cameron calls benefits tourism (more than 84% of the Roma that have been staying abroad had a job there). The UK was also not among the top destinations – particularly for Bulgarian Roma, who preferred neighbouring countries like Greece, because of the favourable climate and lower travel costs.
So, why was then the prime minister's pre-emptive striketargeted at Bulgarians? There is no data suggesting that Bulgarian benefit tourists are coming to flood Britain, nor is there an indication that the Bulgarian government or media are trying to export their social problems by encouraging the poorest groups in Bulgarian society to take the plane to London.
From Sofia, the answer looks pretty obvious to me. Cameron is aware that his voters are gravely concerned with immigration and the abuse of the welfare system by foreigners, so, he wants to be seen to be tough on the issue. For him this was symbolic politics. Bulgarians were probably not the right victims, but they were the most suitable one.
Are Bulgarians mad at David Cameron? That would be exaggerating things. Making votes out of the fears of the people is something that Bulgarian politicians practice on a daily basis, so who can blame Cameron for doing what almost everybody does in the EU these days?
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