The hysteria over the supposed deluge of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants is a saddening one. When politicians and the media resort to fanning the flames of xenophobia, there is no more crass or cowardly spectacle. From my strongest suspicions, this outburst is to a degree a smokescreen for anti-Roma prejudice. But to dismiss the bigotry, subtle or not, out of hand without truly considering its reasoning is just as intellectually shallow.
I am working part-time in conjunction with my studies in a minimum-wage environment. What I earn is merely enough to cover food and transport expenses in London over a week, but I value the experience for the insight it may provide into the lives and realities of many around the country, and not necessarily representative of my own. The Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Star are the literature of the place I work in, voraciously feasted on by those who visit, overwhelmingly white British working class males in one of London’s most diverse neighbourhoods.
On a shift a month ago, coinciding with a screening of the Sunday Politics show, I heard Andrew Neil outlining the context prior to the removal of working restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in Britain this January. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Minister, was interviewed, maddeningly parroting the Labour Party’s newfound mantra “that in government we let in too many immigrants from Eastern Europe and too soon,” without managing to name a single tangible downside of the presence of a near million Polish citizens and other Eastern Europeans in the country today, let alone the tens of thousands who previously called these shores home. Some present, exasperated by a frontline politician’s mendaciousness, began to rant about “fucking immigrants” and flaunt their understanding of the evils of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration.
As the product of a multicultural union, you would be hard pressed to find a stronger supporter of the benefits of immigration to Britain. The fact that I am from Eastern Europe myself and my family continues to live there makes this debate, if it may be termed as one, only the more poignant for me. Admittedly, my experiences of living abroad and away have also blurred my notion of distinctions between peoples and states. The time I spent last summer in a border agency on the periphery of the European Union reinforced my despair at the vacuousness of the notion of the modern nation-state and often existential superficiality of borders and the innumerable strategies related to their supposed maintenance.
But a discussion I held this weekend with one of my pub’s frequenters reminded me again that no matter how malicious on the surface antagonism towards immigration may be, a kernel of truth must lie somewhere among its arguments. A UKIP supporter, and a racist as he himself put it, he predictably justified his political sympathies on Britain’s need to leave Europe. His central argument, however, was that free movement in the European Union was squeezing wages and real jobs in Britain for ordinary workers, hollowing out the economy as a result. For everything I could say about the benefits of membership and the EU’s achievements, there was nothing I could say that would genuinely undermine this argument.
This much I appreciated when reading a few years ago Emmanuel Todd’s Après la démocratie, a damning indictment of the state of the French political system. Of particular relevance was its focus on EU membership, preserving a corporate and neoliberal consensus, in the name of European unity and integration, which has done nothing to protect French job security, wages or livelihoods. Given this reality, the rise of the likes of the National Front in France, and UKIP here, are entirely understandable, offering once proudly productive and efficient societal sectors, now redundant in the globalised context, a seeming alternative to their current plight.
It is for us cosmopolitan liberals, if I could allow myself to be described as such, to step down from our ivory towers and do more than merely bash politicians for descending to gutter politics. It is their likes that have embraced the issue of immigration for naked political gain, rather than because of genuine issues of job security, deindustrialisation, the cost of living, welfare and housing which fuel uncharacteristic expressions of anti-immigrant rhetoric in society’s margins. To remove the sting of immigration for such opportunists, we must disentangle it from all of these other issues. A considerably higher minimum wage or implementation of a living wage across the board, wide-ranging housing programme, end to austerity and trade unions with a stake on company boards are a start. A diversified, export and manufacturing-led economy not built out of banknote columns trailing from City offices, buffering the country from recession and winds of global downturn, might also be helpful.
Freedom of movement in the European Union, while a personal blessing on many counts for citizens such as me, has economically benefited the club’s more prosperous member states, although often at the price of stagnant living and working conditions at the bottom strata of society. The European Union is not a symmetrical economic entity, and before that goal were to laudably become a reality across its sphere, a measured reform of freedom of movement should be considered, if also to stem the disproportionate movement of skilled workers from certain regions to others. On a personal level I strongly disagree with the exclusivity and insularity of EU immigration policy, locking out many, potentially far more qualified workers than those available in Europe. Then again, this probably goes back to my aforementioned opinions on all borders.
None of what I have said is novel or particularly innovative in any way. Anti-immigrant sentiment, save in the case of the elites, is for much of society rarely a mere symptom of deep-seated bigotry or visceral hatred. The causes for it are anything but a secret. The longer we stall and continue to enforce cosmetic changes to our economy and society, the greater the problems for the planeloads of Romanians and Bulgarians ostensibly arriving in Britain this very minute and margins of society likelier to feel the force of greater competition from their arrival.