Thursday, 19 December 2013

UK migration - don't blame the Poles

Back from the studios for the third time this week talking about UK tougher stance on intra-EU migration (taking my total of TV and radio interviews up to 63 this year). Typically, I'm asked "Why doesn't premier Cameron like us Poles?"

The current round of anti-migration rhetoric from the UK government is not about Poles - it's about Romanians and Bulgarians and the fear that they will turn up in their hundreds of thousands and sponge off the state. After months of scaremongering from the Daily Wail, the government has come up with some tighter criteria for eligibility for UK benefits. None look particularly off-putting for the hardened benefit tourist (a quick round-up of the obostrzenia here on the BBC website).

The Mail and its ilk have been raising the temperature on the migration issue for years. The fact that Romanian and Bulgarian citizens can now work in the UK without any restrictions from 1 January has got the right-wing press in a lather, despite the fact that all Romanians and Bulgarians could travel without visa restrictions to the UK ever since they joined the EU in 2007.

The new-EU migration story plays well to the British Right because it's never been politically correct to attack migration when it was mainly from south Asia and the Caribbean. Now, they can talk about being 'swamped' on an 'overcrowded island' without automatically being classified as racists. And yet since 2004, for every one migrant from post-communist new EU member states, two have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia or other non-EU countries.

The anti-migration voice in Britain is also an anti-EU voice. The same people wanting an end to unlimited migration to the UK from the EU are also those who want to quit the EU for other, non-migration reasons, such as fear of a European super-state taking control of the UK. "Unelected faceless Brussels bureaucrats trying to run our country".

Economically speaking, those who claim that unfettered migration from Poland has been bad for the UK are wrong. Poles are among the hardest-working group of foreigners in the UK (only South Africans and New Zealanders have a higher proportion in work and a lower proportion on benefits). Generally, EU migrants in the UK compare favourably to native Brits when it comes to contributing to the economy. However, it is migrants from Somalia, Jamaica, Bangladesh and Pakistan that show the lowest propensity to find employment in the UK, and hence are a net burden on the economy.

Although the British middle classes are well disposed to Poles (hard-working, well-educated, not prone to religious fanaticism or terrorism), the working classes see Poles as competition in the workplace, and so are prone to believe wild stories about swan-eating or widespread benefit fraud.

It will be interesting to see whether 1 January 2014 will be an opening of floodgates (rather, as I must say 1 May 2004 was); I doubt it. The Roma issue is quite separate (and harder to resolve) than that of Romanians as a whole. The Daily Mail will undoubtedly be looking for proof that Romanians and Bulgarians are crooks, thieves and swindlers, hell-bent on coming to Britain to live the high life on welfare payments.

With the European parliamentary elections due on 22 May, it is worth remembering that the SECOND LARGEST UK party represented in Brussels is not Labour or the Liberal Democrats - but the UK Independence Party that wants Britain out of the EU. It is also worth remembering that the extreme right-wing British National Party won two seats at the last Euro-election - the same number as Scottish National Party, the biggest party north of the border. The British electorate treats Euro-elections as a chance to let off steam; the outcome of the 2009 vote was a clear signal that many Brits are deeply unhappy about migration - from whatever country.

David Cameron needs to fend off attacks from the right that he's soft on immigration; if enough middle-class voters switch from Tory to UKIP at the 2015 General Election, it may let Labour slip in to take and overall parliamentary majority.

I personally think that there will not be a flood of Romanians and Bulgarians turning up in the UK looking for work; most who wanted out have gone long ago. We shall see. The migration story, however, will not go away; it will certainly be the main issue around which the European Parliamentary elections are fought.

Incidentally, imagine a chap from Liverpool turning up in Radom with his family, trooping into the local Urząd Pracy [labour office] and saying "If you can't find me a job, mate, I demand my jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit, family allowance, income support - ah, and because it's cold in Poland, some Winter Fuel Payment while you're at it, Tomek. You see, I'm entitled because I'm an EU citizen!" He'd be told he's not got all the right papers, then be sent off to room 301, where, after sitting in a queue for an hour he'd be told that this paper's OK but this one's wrong, he'd then be sent down to room 128, where, after sitting in an even longer queue, he'd be referred back up to room 301 again, and so on, until he ceases to want anything from the Polish state ever again.

This time last year:
Biała gorączka, by Jacek Hugo-Bader

This time last year:
The world mourns the death of Kim Jong Il

This time two years ago:
Global warming or climate change?

This time three years ago:
Progress along the S79

1 comment:

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Fifteen years ago I ended up working in Romania. The bureaucracy there may be hard to navigate but no-one ever told me that I hadn't a right to be there, was taking someone's job or anything like that. And, as I was working in tourism, it wasn't as if I was doing something that no-one there was able to.

Five years ago I returned to Britain because Romania is a difficult place in which to make a decent living. Corruption made running a business harder. The state of the global economy, relatively high interest rates and so on certainly didn't help. And as skilled people emigrated medical care became unreliable. None of this makes the Romanians bad people - far from it - though they have some questionable leaders. I met some excellent doctors, technical and IT specialists - most of whom now live and work abroad. From my perspective I can see more clearly than most just why such people would want to leave, and how the ability to do better would motivate them to strive.

As I see it, a major problem Britain faces is that an underclass of several million relatively unskilled people is largely superfluous to the economy. The economy needs skilled people, and it's only possible to live securely on the higher wages that skilled work brings. Patchy education and welfare dependence have got us here, a native contempt for manual work too, and we'd be stuck without the contribution of the Poles.

Britain's relationship with Romania is, however, quite different to that with Poland. For one thing we'd heard of Poland before 1989. Many of us had met Poles. The first time most of us heard of Romania was in the context of orphanages and aid. Ever since then the Romanians have been struggling with their image. Unfortunately their leaders and officials haven't demonstrated much skill at PR.

The Roma issue is complex. Back in 1990 one didn't see Roma as a discrete group in Romania. State socialism had 'integrated' them. But after 1990 factories shut depriving Roma of work, and of course no longer did the law force anyone to work. Land and property was given back to its former owners, however few Roma had anything to claim. Their pre-communist work as agricultural labourers no longer existed. It's as if post-1990 the Roma were set up to fail. Plus, in the minds of the people, Romanian national identity is again defined ethnically rather than politically. (I was always known as the 'Englez' even as a fluent Romanian speaker integrated into a community. But at least I was a white Caucasian.) My view is that Romania's leaders joined the EU well aware that three things would happen: money would flow in (and they'd grab as much as they could); skilled people would leave (but that won't hurt the people who'd just grabbed the EU's money); and 'undesirables' such as the Roma would leave. And the last of these is a part of the plan.

I've written a bit about the subject - I hope you don't mind me pasting in a url - it's at: