The Flood?: Western Europe Fearful of Eastern Immigration

British, French and German politicians are all sounding the alarm. In 2014, Romanian and Bulgarian citizens will be given free movement within Europe’s labor market. They are concerned about a wave of immigration, yet most of those who want to head west likely already have.

For the European Union, Jan. 1 2014 is going to be a potentially charged day. It’s the day that Romanians and Bulgarians will be given free, unlimited access to the European labor market. Both countries have been full members of the EU since 2007, but under the terms of accession, they were not to be given full freedom of labor movement for a transitional period of seven years. With this last barrier scheduled to fall in less than a year, a major, pan-European debate on immigration is now unfolding.

The mood is particularly tense in Great Britain. Next week, a by-election is taking place in Eastleigh for an empty seat in the House of Commons, and the governing Tories have markedly ratcheted up their rhetoric against what they have dubbed “welfare tourism.”

Roma in Bulgaria protesting in front of the French Embassy in Sofia in 2010.

“We’re not tough enough right now about people coming from the other side of the world who decide to use our health service,” Prime Minister David Cameron recently stated. “They haven’t contributed in their taxes. They should pay when they use the NHS,” the National Health System. And British Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has thundered against other Europeans who “use the free movement rules just to travel around, looking for the best benefits they can get.”

The rhetoric is a response to pressure from the country’s tabloid press. Newspapers like the Sun and other tabloids are currently feeding fears of a flood of poor immigrants from southeast Europe. “So here we stand, staring at the oncoming train, but … utterly impotent,” an article in the Daily Mail stated. With this “potentially huge political and social disaster hurtling down the tracks,” the paper warned, Cameron and his government are standing, “frozen in the headlamps, waiting for the crash in January.” The story is accompanied by a photo of a group of downtrodden Roma standing in front of a dumpster.

Cameron Wants to Eliminate Benefits

Cameron has already announced his intention to cap social services for immigrants to Britain from other EU countries. A high-ranking working group at 10 Downing Street is currently working on proposals to make this happen. Among the measures being considered is a plan to apply fees to newcomers for a national healthcare system in Britain that is currently free. But other ideas, like the briefly considered notion of creating an advertising campaign in Bulgaria and Romania that would discourage potential immigrants from making their way to England, have been scrapped.


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