Europe's Hypocrisy Over Bulgaria and Romania
by Judy Dempsey
When Poland and seven other countries in Central and Eastern Europe joined the EU in 2004, hundreds of thousands of highly motivated young people headed westward.
They were willing to work long hours and do difficult jobs—but that wasn’t to everybody’s liking. Poles, in particular, coming from Eastern Europe’s most populous nation, were often accused of stealing jobs from locals in the host countries.
Yet, over time, Poles set up local communities, newspapers, and schools. Those who returned to Poland could afford better housing and better education for themselves and their children. In retrospect, that wave of migration is a great example of how an open and united EU benefits everybody.
Now, a decade later, populists and anti-immigrant parties in many Western European countries have turned their attention to Bulgarians and Romanians, who, as of January 1, are allowed to work without restrictions in any EU country.
British tabloid newspapers have been virulent in their criticism of Bulgarians and Romanians, accusing them of milking the UK’s social welfare system. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc is playing the populist card too. Elmar Brok, the Christian Democratic chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, suggested that a fingerprint system be introduced in order to monitor those receiving benefits.
This discrimination of Bulgarians and Romanians is shameful and hypocritical.
Ever since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, German recruitment agencies have been scouring both countries to seek medical and nursing staff for German hospitals and retirement homes. Engineering and high-tech professionals have been highly sought after, too.
There were no complaints, then, when many of the best and the brightest left Bulgaria and Romania to seek more opportunities and better salaries in Germany and elsewhere. Nor were concerns expressed about the effects of this shocking brain drain of motivated people on the two Eastern European countries. Over the last ten years, Romania’s population has fallen by 12 percent to under 18 million.
So why the furor now? The main reason is that since January 1, internal EU borders have also fallen for those Romanians and Bulgarians who are far humbler than the graduates who were so eagerly recruited into Western Europe. Now, simple workers too can come and seek their fortune in the West. And most dramatically, judging from populist warnings, members of the Roma ethnic minority are free to travel and try to claim social benefits in Germany, Britain, and other countries.
The underlying message from the populists is that the Roma should not enjoy the same rights as other EU citizens. It’s as if they are not perceived as Europeans citizens, while there is no solace in their own countries, where they suffer institutionalized discrimination. The EU reckons that between 10 and 12 million Roma live in Europe, including in the Balkan countries. An estimated 400,000 Roma live in Bulgaria and 621,000 in Romania.
Reports by the World Bank, Amnesty International, and the Open Society Foundations as well as recent newspaper articles have documented the appalling living conditions the Roma have to endure, not only in Bulgaria and Romania, but also in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.
Many Roma are forced to live in ghettos or slums, without rights or facilities. Rareş Buglea, the head of the youth wing of Romania’s National Liberal Party, recently called for Roma women to be sterilized.
This has caused far less outrage than it should have, because prejudices against Roma are widespread throughout Europe. Roma are frequently considered “outsiders,” “different,” and unable to integrate. They are, therefore, welcome neither at home or abroad.
That echoes the perception of the poor, religious Jews who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century moved from the ghettos of Eastern Europe to the West. They and the Roma suffered the same fate during the Holocaust. Yet public perceptions about the Roma have remained rooted in prejudice.
Belatedly, the EU has begun to take the Roma issue seriously. It is allocating funds (which the member states should top up) in order to improve housing, infrastructure, and education.
Yet there is increasing evidence that the Romanian and Bulgarian governments and local authorities are not delivering on their side of the bargain. This means that the longer the Roma are marginalized and the longer the discrimination continues in their own countries, the more Roma will be tempted to leave rather than endure such misery and poverty.
For years, the Open Society Foundations, established by the financier and philanthropist George Soros, have been trying to dent the hopelessness and prejudice. The grant-making organization has sought to engender a sense of identity and political awareness among the Roma so that they can have a voice and slowly integrate.
Integrating the Roma community will undoubtedly take time, and perseverance is needed. Self-empowerment with strong social and financial support on the local, national, and EU level is critical. Equally crucial is a sustained public-awareness campaign.
If the EU is to have any meaning as a home for its minorities, then the Roma must be included. It is time to break with this aspect of Europe’s ignominious past.
- » World Bank: Bulgaria Needs to Increase Productivity to Battle Demographic Crisis
- » Bloomberg: Grexit Threatens Bulgarian, Romanian Banking Industries
- » WSJ: Pro-Western Bulgaria Is One of Putin's Targets
- » NY Times: Bulgaria Fears Spillover of Greece Baking Trouble
- » The Guardian: Sofia Is 'Social Behind a Socialist Facade'
- » BBC: 'Bulgaria's Fortified Frontier a Staging Post for Migrants'
One important fact missing from the above article, when the EU was enlarged by the inclusion of Poland and the 7 smaller countries the freedom of movement for work was closed in all but 3 EU member states, the UK was one of these 3, all the other EU countries had embargoes on the 8 new member states. It is because of this which meant the Poles and the others were restricted to just 3 countries to find work that the numbers coming into the the UK were hugely underestimated and many more 000's arrived than were anticipated. This is recent memory and so the UK public are now over sensitive about the possibility of many more 000's. This has been fired upby some corners of the press (not to name names) and a certain Nigel Farage for his own political ends. If the writers of the obove have spent long enough in the UK they would know the truth of what I have said, I feel very much for the embarrassment they may have had to endure but they would know where the native population is coming from. They are all highly educated and would have been quite capable of explaining their position, acknowledging the UK's concerns and rebutting any untrue criticism. My own feeling on the matter is that the Romanian and Bulgarian people are being painted as Roma as though they were all of that ilk, although I am not racist it is true that the Roma, in many cases when they have come into the UK have not integrated, lived as they would in Romania (very basic even, to many UK folk, dirty and unhygienic) and have not found or even looked for work.
"where they suffer institutionalized discrimination" What somebody please like to explain what this institutionalized discrimination is, instead of just throwing baseless accusations".
"the more Roma will be tempted to leave rather than endure such misery and poverty" The misery and poverty which Roma endure is the same which the rest of the population has to endure, they just have different means of enduring it, but nevertheless everyone endures it. It is not as if Bulgarians are living like royalty in majestic palaces, driving around farers whilst the Roma are the poor, exploited slaves which do all the work, the way the media commonly makes it out to be.
Maybe we should more articles on the "institutionalized discrimination" which Africans, Arabs, Indians, Turks face in France, Spain, UK, Belgian, Germany as the situation for them is the same as the situation for the Roma here.
@Caliguy Your statistics are off, Bulgaria's second largest city has less than 400 000 people in total.