The Government's Attitude to Romania and Bulgaria Is Contemptible
by Alex Massie
Pity the staff at the British embassy in Bucharest. Only last month they were cheerfully banging the drum for Great Britain, telling Romanians what a swell country this rain-soaked archipelago is. You see:
The GREAT campaign invites the world to take a fresh look at the UK, and is designed to promote Britain as one of the very best places to visit, live, work, study, invest and do business.
Oh dear. Time to reverse ferret.
Brother Forsyth reports that the government is so spooked by the appalling thought that plucky Romanians and enterprising Bulgars might think the United Kingdom a land of opportunity that they are considering a new advertising campaign targeting the EU's newest members: Britain is crap. Don't come here.
Evidently, the Tories and the Labour party are in a race to see who can pander to the lowest brand of nativist sentiment. This is a dismal prospect and one that, in a better world, might be thought unworthy of either party. James reports that the government is exploring every means available by which it can limit the rights of Romanians and Bulgars to come and work in the UK. Labour, apparently, wants to 'bar recruitment agencies from hiring' workers from Romania and Bulgaria.
There are several reasons why this is contemptible. First, there is the simple principle of equity. If we accept – nay, demand – that Britons should be able to work in any of the EU's 27 member states then fairness demands those rights be available to the citizens of all countries, not just the wealthiest, most fortunate few.
Moreover, it makes no sense for the Prime Minister to call for deepening, expanding and strengthening the single market (about which he is quite correct) while also seeking to install protectionist policies designed to impede the working of the single labour market. Freedom of movement is a principle worth defending. The EU's eastward expansion has been a great boon for liberty and opportunity in eastern Europe. It is depressing to realise that a British government now seeks to curtail those valuable freedoms.
Again, if Britain demands protectionism in the movement of workers, it becomes harder for the UK to object to other countries' protectionist impulses on other matters. The price of "winning" on economic migration may be "losing" in areas Britain considers important.
In any case, Romania and Bulgaria are members of the club now and, as such, deserve the rights and privileges extended to other members. EU-expansion has been a British policy aim for years. Now it has been achieved the British government seeks to impose third-class membership upon those new states. This cannot be fair or reasonable.
This is an opportunity for Britain to make friends and allies with the newer EU members. But why should they be expected to listen sympathetically to British concerns on any number of European issues if the British government makes it clear that their people are not welcome in the United Kingdom?
As for the threat of local communities being "swamped", well, does it matter where the "new arrivals" come from? We are told that objections to the free movement of workers are twofold: first, they make life harder for "indigenous" British workers and second, they put intolerable pressure on local services.
Perhaps they do – though the extent to which this is the case is, actually, often exaggerated (not least because many migrant workers return home after a few years away. They are not permanent residents). But suppose, just for the sake of argument, 70,000 Geordies decided to move to Norfolk in search of work. The impact upon Norfolk of that kind of internal migration would be just as great as any putative Romanian invasion. Should Geordies be "capped" too? And if not, why not? Because the principle of the argument is broadly the same.
Migration is migration and in terms of local services and local labour markets it makes little difference whether that migration is from internal or external sources. British cities attract workers from beyond the city limits and have done so for ages. The only difference between a Scotsman taking advantage of London's noble prospect and a Pole doing so too is their ethnicity. Their impact on and usefulness to London is just the same.
Of course, we've been here before. No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. But I'd kinda hoped we might have moved beyond that these days. Perhaps we have but if so the difference, increasingly, seems one of degree not kind. So, yes, the government's attitude towards european workers is as stupid as it is contemptible.
That's the way the wind is blowing, however, and I expect that anti-immigrant sentiment will trump British traditions of fairness, openness and opportunity that, once more, will be subordinated to grubby political expediency.