On 1 January all remaining restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers to the EU will be lifted. Seven years after the accession of these countries to the Union, the last remaining older EU states that have not yet lifted these restrictions, including France, Belgium and Great Britain, are under legal obligation to do so.
What will happen? Mayhem? Apocalypsis? In any case this is what UK Prime Minister David Cameron expects, if you believe his words. He recently announced that Romanians and Bulgarians would not be entitled to the same social benefits as other Europeans in Britain.
Others believe that Cameron knows perfectly well that the problem will not arise. But he will continue to make noises, hoping to make sure that the populist radicals, such as the Independence Party (UKIP), would not enjoy exclusive rights in exploiting the issue in the wake of European elections in May 2014 and the UK general elections a year later. And Cameron probably wants to make sure UKIP would not blame him for being a wimp.
The British tabloid press has exacerbated the fears of an influx of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals after 1 January. For me, in my capacity of Bulgarian journalist, this is a déjà vu. In 2006, on the eve of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU, almost exactly the same UK media phenomenon happened.
At that time, Britain was one of the few EU countries to still maintain visas for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, and had to abandon visa restrictions from the date of accession on 1 January 2007. The tabloids had imagined hordes of hungry thieves and prostitutes rushing to Albion, to set the islands on fire.
Already at that time, immigration experts predicted that nothing spectacular would happen, as Bulgarian and Romanian had the opportunity since 2001 to travel in the EU borderless Schengen area without visas. As Sofia and Bucharest keep saying since then – those who wanted to go have already left. There will be no new wave, or at least the phenomenon would not be worth mentioning.
But at the time there was no UKIP and the tone was more moderate. This time around, the British press and politicians surpassed themselves and their hostile and xenophobic language aroused astonishment and bitterness in Bulgaria and Romania, as the many articles of the UK tabloids get translated and make big headlines in these countries.
In the country I know best, 18,000 British have settled, they purchased villas, enjoying cheap prices in an almost Mediterranean climate. There is no animosity between British and Bulgarian to my knowledge, except in the virtual space of the hostile tabloids articles and the comments they generate.
Paradoxically, it is in Britain that Bulgaria and Romania should thank for their accession to the EU and NATO. Historically, it was Tony Blair who fought for these two countries to join the EU, to reward their support to the NATO intervention in 1999, which aimed to stop the atrocities of the regime of Slobodan Milsoevic in Kosovo.
At that time, the governments of Bulgaria and Romania had offered their airspace to NATO fighter planes, although public opinion was strongly opposed to this undeclared war. Isn’t it ironic? This decision of the elite in power, perceived as an outrage by many, has actually opened the door of the coveted clubs: NATO and the EU.
But why did Blair fight for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania? Actually, it’s constant of British politics, beyond party lines, that enlargement should dilute the Union into a loose confederation of heterogeneous states. So the Brits got what they wanted, didn’t they?
Hence my conclusion: Bulgarian and Romanian do not have much to worry about Cameron’s rhetoric, let him practice gutter communication, if he thinks this could do him any good. Although to my mind, he is losing the European elections. But for many reasons Bulgarian and Romanian do have a bad image in the EU, which they should repair, the faster, the better.