I've written a short piece reflecting upon what passes for debate in Britain concerning the impending free movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the EU. Having lived out there, I have an interest in the matter. I intend the article to be fair and reasonable - I have no axe to grind beyond trying to reflect what I have seen and understood.
The British media is awash with comment upon the free movement of Romanian and Bulgarian nationals. The conclusion, supported by some reactionary politicians, is that economic migration is a bad thing. Nigel Farage would prefer to admit Syrian refugees over Romanians. This ‘debate’ is a sorry affair, ignorance mixed with prejudice, whilst the real issues affecting Britain are brushed over.
So why should I be any more qualified to comment? My involvement with Romania goes back twenty-four years. I lived there for eight years, becoming a moderately fluent Romanian speaker. I have read around the history and culture of Romania, and I have met Romanians from politicians to peasants. As manager of a tourist business, I welcomed people from fifty nations to Romania. And beyond pure academic knowledge and a tourist’s viewpoint, I have discovered just how hard it can be to run a business and make a decent living in Romania.
But let’s wind the clock back to 1989, to the events that thrust Romania in the British consciousness. Some of us visited Romania to provide ‘aid’, and many more generously donated money. We travelled across Europe in vehicles laden with food, clothes and consumer goods, creating the impression that we came from a land of plenty. Those of us who brought Romanians to Britain promptly took our guests to visit massive supermarkets, smiling at their wide eyes and tears. And now we’re surprised that Romanians want to live and work in Britain?
Living in a rural community in Romania, I soon realised that my neighbours were far too busy trying to make a living to pay much attention to their leaders. After centuries of being invaded and dominated, Romanians have learned to make the best of whatever happens. The concept that citizens can change the course of their nation, and the growth of a system that admitted the possibility, took centuries to develop in Britain. But we expect Romanians to engage with their government, root out corruption and become ‘like us’.
Isn’t that what the ‘aid industry’ was about – making Romanians ‘like us’? I know that some people took out food and painted walls out of the goodness of our hearts. And others of us went there to ‘build churches’, creating more cloned neo-Protestant ‘believers’ just like us. How long did it take for denominationally-affiliated schools, bakeries and pharmacies to appear? Of course you can have bread or medicine, we said, so long as you become a Baptist.
Another piece of reality: life in a Romanian village made it clear just what a narrow sliver of the nation we saw when delivering 'aid' back in the early '90s. How little we saw of the real Romania. And what a poor impression of the country our fundraising must have given to our British supporters.
Soon the EU came upon the scene, offering generous benefits if only Romania would transform itself into the image of a modern European nation. Yes, let’s talk about reducing corruption, close some orphanages and enact some laws that mention ‘equality’. Let’s privatise some companies and repair some roads. Of course we shall send some soldiers to Iraq to risk death in place of yours. Just like we Romanians pretended to join your chosen sect, we’ll happily give the impression of fitting in to your political union.
As for the leaders of Romania, I believe that they expected three things from joining the EU. Money, of course, and those in power personally benefited mightily from this. Of course an exodus of skilled people would occur, but all that European money could pay for private health care for the ruling class. And the ‘undesirables’ would leave – with Roma at the top of the list - to become someone else’s problem. But I know enough about Romania not to blame its citizens for their leaders. The EU failed the taxpayers who funded expansion and the citizens of the new member states.
The EU doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the internal Romanian situation. Did they really grasp what was going on? I don’t remember a visible Roma presence in 1990. But I do recall the lines of peasants queuing two years later to register the land expropriated by the communist regime. Of course it was right to return stolen land to farming families, stolen houses to their former owners. But what would those do whose ancestors possessed neither land nor property? What about people thrown out of work when inefficient state industries imploded? That kind of shock therapy – unequal, arbitrary and sometimes plain discriminatory – will produce a result. The Romanian people are consummate survivors. Let’s give them credit for this. As a national group they survived centuries of oppressive Ottoman and Habsburg domination, two world wars and several decades of brutal state socialism, emerging as hospitable hosts ready to kindly welcome visitors. After 1990 each group did what it needed to in order to survive. At risk of generalising, former communist officials took what they could. Skilled workers emigrated. Farmers worked the land and cut timber. Roma collected scrap metal, begged and stole. I know that the full picture is more complex. But the point is clear: each did what he or she needed to survive, based on personal circumstances. And these behaviours do not accord with the British way. How could they? We haven’t experienced history as the Romanians have. But this is all rather complicated. The leaders and organs of the EU don’t seem to have taken the time to try and understand the Romanian psyche. They certainly didn’t understand established members – otherwise why would Greece have got into such a mess, catching out the EU in the process?
Opportunity to further oneself is limited in Romania, and little trickles down to benefit the majority. No wonder ambitious people want to leave! I believe that Romanians are unusually well adapted for emigration. As I see it, the essence of Romanian national identity is based upon language and myth - in the ethnographic sense of the word - which a person can carry in his or her head. It’s not rooted within historic places and celebrated landscapes like our traditional British identity. The castles and historic towns in Romania were, for the most part, built by invaders and immigrants. Greater Romania only came into existence after the First World War. Until then most Romanians were second-class citizens within someone else’s empire - and communism was no better. So it’s easier to leave, carrying national identity within, than we British might think. It’s possible to thrive secure in that rich and conveniently mobile identity. And if Romanians are sensitive to being treated as a barely-tolerated minority, history explains why.
I’ve touched upon Ottoman and Habsburg domination of the land that is now Romania. A sizeable German population also lived in Romania, and smaller groups of Czechs, Poles and others still live there. As a British national I was welcomed into Romania. I might, had I been more cunning – or, perhaps, ruthless - have prospered. The point is that Romanians see nothing strange in a foreign person working successfully in a host nation. Based upon historic experience, those immigrants have done well.
Anyway there’s good economic sense in immigration. I work in Britain’s engineering industry, where we’re desperately short of skilled people. My colleagues come from a plethora of lands on five continents, including at least one Romanian and a Bulgarian. Not only do we gain from the skills these people bring – and their desire to succeed – we are depriving their homelands of IT specialists, engineers and doctors. But of course we don’t worry about that so long as we can fill that post and deliver that contract on time.
But let’s look for some similarities. Few British or Romanians want Roma as neighbours. In my experience Romanians perceive Roma as an alien group, differing in language, history and culture. And the two groups are different, socially and ethnically - it is quite wrong to characterise ethnic Romanians according to the Roma stereotype. The British don’t want Roma - or anyone 'undeserving' - to receive money from the social security system funded by our taxes. However in Britain we don’t want to say this. For that matter, we don’t want to be heard saying that we feel 'threatened' by Muslims, another group readily and regularly stereotyped. So we project our feelings onto a ‘safe’ target – white Caucasians ‘like us’ generally disinclined to steal or support terrorism. Perhaps Romanians will simply feel offended and move elsewhere? That’s a vestige of empire – we British are used to ‘foreigners’ harrumphing at our prejudice.
A little introspection is needed. In the new global economy, a more ‘efficient’ Britain offers few employment opportunities to an unskilled underclass of millions. Nowadays finance, technology and IT are our strengths – not agriculture, coal mining or building ships. Even call centre jobs have been exported. In our society several million people are simply superfluous. If there weren’t half a million Poles at work in Britain the underclass would be no better off. A vicious combination of poor skills and costly housing would keep them captive, dependant on social security. If that’s the case, what is the problem with relatively skilled people coming here ready and willing to work? Nothing, actually: but it’s easier to rail against economic migrants than to admit that the living standards of the majority depend upon the inequality inherent in a broken society?
So, let’s accept that Romanians will come to live and work in Britain. Let’s take the opportunity to work together: Romanians contributing to the British economy whilst Britain – consciously and deliberately – helps Romania to strengthen its society and public institutions. Let’s become friends, building upon the goodwill that began one December twenty-four years ago.
Friends tell the truth. They offer criticism as well as support. Friends develop the maturity to stick together. They learn about what makes the other tick. Friends give as much as they take, or even more. They grow in partnership. Friends can be different in character, age and experience, but they share mutual respect. They learn from one-another. Friendship could be good for both Britain and Romania.