By Clive Leviev – Sawyer of The Sofia Globe
The dampest squib of New Year 2014 was the supposed influx of thousands of Bulgarians and Romanians to the United Kingdom after the EU-wide lifting of labour restrictions, but parts of the British media and some politicians continue to scrabble desperately to ignite the failed fireworks.
In response, Bulgarians have shown humour at the hysteria – which is indeed largely laughable – but also concern at what lies behind the propaganda campaign against them and their Romanian neighbours.
Inevitably, social network Facebook saw swathes of jokes shared by Bulgarians with their friends as they greeted the New Year. “I’m in London, is anyone still in Sofia?” was one of many such posts.
Every gaffe, and there have been several, by the UK media involved in the campaign has been seized on with glee and reposted with acerbic comments beneath. Similarly, satirical pieces by websites such as NewsBiscuit were appreciatively shared online.
Not to be deterred, websites such as that of the Daily Mail plunged on: “no official estimates have been given of the number of Romanians and Bulgarians likely to arrive in Britain, but amid claims they could number up to 50 000, prime minister David Cameron has rushed through measures restricting access to jobless benefits and NHS healthcare,” it screeched on January 5, apparently also not pausing to consider the redundancy in the last two words of that sentence.
The Daily Express, which has been frothing for months on the topic, the same day spewed more verbiage including the note, “thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians are expected to head here in the coming months, after border restrictions were lifted on January 1, sparking fears criminals may be among those seeking work”. The piece had the customary equivalence of Bulgarians and Romanians equal Roma people equal criminals, and further, in its haste, appeared to miss the logic that anywhere it probably is desirable for criminals to seek work.
Perhaps to the disappointment of those of a parochial world-view, the “immigration issue” has not been top headline news in Bulgaria, apart from in the sense of the cyclical nature of the media writing about the UK media. Which is not to omit to some Bulgarians have discussed publicly, in one notable case for the UK media and otherwise locally, what the hysterical campaign against Bulgarians and Romanians is actually about.
Nikolai Mladenov, who was Bulgaria’s foreign minister from 2010 to early 2013 and now is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, told the BBC Radio 4 that “this whole mass hysteria, which has been fanned by some media outlets in the UK, has been purely politically motivated and that there is no reason to believe that the UK will be swarmed by waves of immigrants from Bulgaria”.
As quoted on January 3 by the Guardian (which has been an honorable contrast to the tabloid propaganda on the issue through its sober and professional coverage), Mladenov said, “I think it’s been entirely driven the far-right political agenda”.
Writing in Sofia-based mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa, commentator Boris Zyumbyulev saw racism in the campaign: “the Brits are scared and abhor Bulgarian and especially Romanian gypsies”.
“They do not want gypsies because they are dirty and smell, are poor, hungry and are waiting for someone to support them,” said Zyumbyulev, adding that it was for the same reason that Bulgarians hated gypsies, which in turn meant that Bulgaria had its own racist and anti-Roma rhetoric.
Through Europe, “Nazi-populist” parties were on the rise, but in Britain, the term “Bulgarians and Romanians” was being used as a euphemism for Roma people, a way of being racist without using racist language, Zyumbyulev said.
“Actually there is nothing against Bulgarian doctors or nurses. We are white, clean, educated and nice,” he said. The real need was to call the issue by its real name, and for policies to address Roma integration at European level.
Bulgaria had no power to socially integrate all the Roma in the world. But the idea that it had to bear all the costs of maintaining Roma people was unfair, Zyumbyulev said, adding that Bulgaria was being punished for the fact that “unlike half of Europe” it did not allow the Holocaust extermination of its Roma population – and adding further his rejection of the racist thinking that Roma people cannot work and live normally.
Zyumbyulev said that for Bulgaria, the real problem was that it would lose its doctors. In the UK, France and Germany, doctors’ income was 20 times higher: “in other words, in two years you get as much as in 40 here”.
Writing in local Sofia-based newspaper Kapital, Dimitar Bechev, director of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, not only exploded some of the tabloid-propagated myths about the workings of the social benefits system (“the idea that because of perfidious Brussels, poor Romanians and Bulgarians will slip into the British social system is ridiculous”) but also poured scorn on the estimates by groups like Migration Watch.
Those who had wanted to leave their countries for a better life elsewhere already had done so. Work permits or registration as self-employed in the UK had been possible since 2007.
The immigration drama, Bechev said, arose from two causes.
The first is that Bulgarians and Romanians were a soft and easy target. “Attacking white Europeans as a problem will not bring accusations of racism and public dishonour. The language used towards Romanians and Bulgarians would not be tolerated if were directed towards other communities, say Asians,” Bechev said.
The second part of the explanation was that Eastern Europeans were being demonised and sacrificed for Britain’s agonised relationship with the EU, with Tory leader Cameron seeing the battle against Brussels for more control over migration as a useful one – even if the battle was lost, Cameron would bear the mantle of the defender of national interests in the European and future parliamentary elections, against the pressure from UKIP and Eurosceptics in his own party.
The irony was that Cameron and home secretary Theresa May and their promises against the free movement of people could destroy the very legacy of Margaret Thatcher, the single market, which was vital to the prosperity of the UK.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s domestic media had a cautionary advisory for those considering seeking work in the UK labour market, warning that moving to the UK was an expensive endeavour, costing sums in pounds sterling that are very steep by the standards of Bulgarian wallets.
“Next comes the waiting and the exacerbating search for work, without guarantees that you will find it and without being entitled to any welfare benefits,” mass-circulation daily Trud said on January 3. “If BBC television keeps advertising cheap booze in Bulgaria (a reference to a documentary in summer 2013 about British binge drinking in Bulgarian Black Sea resorts), it will prove more lucrative to wait on Britons in this country than in Britain”.