Comment: Romania and the UK: Migration, the big issue

A Romania long timer, guest writer Stuart Meikle covers the hot topic of migration, giving a fresh perspective on how things may look from the other side, while acknowledging the issues Romania is facing at the same time.

After a couple of weeks in the UK it is interesting to observe that Romania is in the thoughts of so many.

Now let me start by saying that I am not writing this to add further negative comment about Romania. I know that poor international press coverage is a touchy issue for so many back in Romania, and it is a viewpoint I am often in sympathy with. This is not about Romania’s national image; it is about the real perceptions of those in the UK with concern for what may happen after January 1st 2014 when Romanian citizens receive the right to work in the UK unencumbered.

I am an old ‘Romania’ hand, I have lived in the country for a dozen years and I have a positive attitude to Romania and Romanians. I have watched for many years, with a heavy heart, the impact of the country’s woeful economic progress and seen first-hand the consequences of ‘austerity’ upon its people. The greatest consequence of which is economic migration; a migration that is of such magnitude that I do ask the question: is this the greatest migration within Europe since 1945? I cannot answer that categorically, but the very posing of the question should give the reader pause for thought.

The figure of three million migrants is thrown around with total blasé. There seems to be little thought for what it means; a generation of ‘home-alone’ children and pensioners left bereft of family in a country where the welfare state is, let us say, a tad on the weak side. Romania records some of the Union’s lowest unemployment statistics because those it cannot employ are just simply somewhere else. What are they doing? The answer is seeking work in the very countries that are themselves in deep economic crisis.

Yesterday I read the article in the about the report on potential migration to the UK from Romania in 2014. And I do find myself agreeing with Migration Watch UK, it does not address the issue of just how many, already ‘economically mobile’, Romanians living in Spain and Italy are going to look upon the opportunity to work in the UK (or the Netherlands for that matter) as, just simply that, an opportunity. Concluding that the UK, on past evidence, is not the first port of call for migrants is a little naïve. Was the report based upon interviewing a large cross-section of Romanians working in Spain and Italy? If not, why not? As the Romanian Ambassador to London rightly said, Romania is reaching the limit of its labor exports. But that is not the issue; it is about the movement of the already departed.

Back in the autumn I found myself walking a Suffolk beach with a retired Fleet Street journalist who happened to also be staying in the delightful Ship Inn at Dunwich. The conversation was about the absorption of social housing in his local town by migrants from Romania. I cannot verify what he said, but it was clearly of very real concern. It is now the spring and I am again back in the UK, and it is clear that these kind of concerns are now of a greater magnitude. One cannot doubt that the issues have been played up by parts of the political spectrum and parts of the press, but this makes it no less of a real issue in the minds of the citizenry of the UK. It is their perception, however informed, that counts.

So where are we now? The honest answer is that I do not know. I have no more idea than the next person about how many Romanians will seek work in the UK. But if they choose to do so, they will only be exercising the rights that they have under EU law from January 1st 2014. What I do recognize is that there are very large numbers of Romanians based elsewhere in Europe who may look for work in the UK.

What I do hear in the UK is a concern for the social welfare system and health service, shortages in housing and social housing, and a serious shortfall in school places. And for the residents of the UK these fundamentals of their society are already under threat from their very own version of austerity. They simply do not believe that that Nation UK has the resources to provide for more people. I do not doubt that most Romanians who do move to the UK will do so with the best intentions to work and contribute, but we are not dealing with the intentions of Romanians, we are dealing with the perceptions of the people of the UK and that is what counts in the UK.

This migration issue is occurring at an interesting time in the UK. It is happening at a time when some are questioning the position of the UK in Europe. At some point a referendum on EU membership will happen. The freedom of movement within the EU and the inability to control the UK border will be a part of the debate. The movement of Romanians into the UK will be an issue. If it is significant migration it will not go unreported. It will not go unexploited by the ‘exit’ lobby. I do not know what the polls looks like but I do wonder whether a significant Romanian migration at or around the time of a referendum may be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. It could be the very factor that pushes the people of the UK to vote ‘No’ to remaining within the EU. If that does come to pass, what next for Union itself?

Romania’s economic woes have gone relatively unnoticed at a time when Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and now Cyprus have dominated the headlines. Romanians have endured the harshest of austerity measures. I personally still believe they were unnecessary and poorly thought out. The policy followed in Romania was a ‘one-size-fits-all’ that mirrored and magnified the measures used elsewhere but that took little account of the real issues in Romania. Their unreformed continuance will only continue to hinder Romania’s economic development. The consequence of this economic ‘austerity’ policy is the economic migration of at least 15 percent of the people (and a greater proportion of its labor force) of Romania. Has that happened in any of the aforementioned countries?

The failure to get to grips with the economic situation in Romania is now coming home to roost. The economic migration of Romanians into other troubled EU economies is an increasing issue for Romania’s EU partners. And with a little vision one can see that the consequences of this [unnecessary] economic migration could even undermine the Union itself.

Am I the only one who sees the significance of the 2014 date? Are we going to see Europe again unravel from an issue originating in south-east Europe exactly a century on from an incident in Sarajevo in 1914? One hopes not, but as they say, we live in interesting times. All I will say is that I think it is about time we all took the economic situation in Romania and the welfare of the Romanian people a little more seriously. The consequences of not doing so are now beginning to have repercussions that are transcending, like the people of Romania, the internal national borders within the European Union.

By Stuart Meikle, Guest Writer

Stuart Meikle is an agricultural management consultant. He was a University of London academic and is an economist, a writer and a farmer. He has been involved within Romanian agriculture as an adviser, as an executive manager and as an observer for 15 years. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Romania

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