Bulgaria Hits out at Being Used as a Scapegoat by Britain
By Alex Spillius, Diplomatic Correspondent
Bulgaria has been used as a scapegoat by British politicians, its ambassador to London claimed, describing portrayals of his countrymen as sometimes "offensive" and "bordering on defamatory".
Hitting back after weeks of adverse publicity about a potential influx of eastern Europeans, Konstantin Dimitrov said it was "highly unacceptable" that Bulgarians were being identified as a potential drain on the British welfare system.
Though he did not single out any party by name, Bulgaria's greatest concern is clearly the United Kingdom Independence Party.
During its stunning second placed finish in the Eastleigh by-election, Ukip made immigration a hot-button issue. It warned of a flood of arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania from January 1, 2014, when citizens of the European Union's two poorest countries will be able to work in Britain freely. Since joining the EU in 2007 they have required a work permit.
"We react in measured but very firm terms against politicians, who do not belong to the government at this point, and to certain media," Mr Dimitrov told the Daily Telegraph in an interview at the London embassy.
"Domestic politics sometimes needs foreign scapegoats. That's where it comes from, as simple as that," he said.
A "highly negative public and media context" had been created by the presentation of Bulgaria as a state riddled by organised crime and corruption that would send an influx of "undesirable aliens", he said.
Bulgaria's apprehension at its treatment has received some support in Parliament. Lord Tyler, a Liberal peer, this week urged Ukip to avoid encouraging "negative nationalism" of the sort seen in the run-up to the First World War.
Ukip's campaign repeatedly warned of the potentially devastating impact of new immigration on crime rates, housing, schools and health care provision, concerns that were then taken up by some Conservative MPs. One, Dominic Raab, discovered that there were half a million EU citizens claiming benefits in Britain.
On Tuesday, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, admitted there was "somewhat of a crisis" over the ease with which EU nationals receive welfare.
"Some people want to come here solely to claim benefits," he said in Parliament.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, was meanwhile due to chair a home affairs committee meeting yesterday that examined ways of restricting benefit claims by EU residents in Britain.
Mr Dimitrov said the ongoing debate was unfairly singling out Bulgaria, "developing xenophobia" and creating the "grounds for hostility or discrimination" against his compatriots.
He doubted that the rule changes in 2014 would "open the floodgates", as most Bulgarians who wanted to work in Britain had been able to do so since 2007.
The number of arrivals could rise from the current average of 10,000 a year, he conceded, but not by much.
Many of the 53,000 Bulgarians who received permits to work in Britain since 2007 were doctors, entrepreneurs and accountants who had "added to the intellectual capacity of your workforce", he said.
Others were nurses, day care staff and fruit-pickers who "filled niches that are obviously not acceptable or attractive to UK nationals".
"This has nothing to do with threats to your social benefit system," he said firmly, adding that Bulgarians were not placed in the top ten of a recent police list of criminal foreigners, which was headed by Romanians.
Britain imposed the work permit requirement on citizens from the two Balkan states after being surprised by the number of arrivals from Poland and other new EU members after 2004. Under EU law, it would be illegal to extended the restriction unilaterally, as demanded by some Tory MPs.
Immigration analysts have pointed that all but eight of the 27 EU states have already offered Romanians and Bulgarians unrestricted working rights, making a headlong rush for Britain less likely.
Germany is among those whose restrictions will be lifted next year. Given the relative robustness of the German economy and its proximity to Bulgaria, it could be a more attractive destination than Britain. Italy has also been a traditional target for seasonal Bulgarian labour.
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