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Britain’s immigration debate stoked for political advantage

European Union
Daily Mail anti-immigrant headline

Scare-mongering headlines in the British press incite racism and hysteria. Gideon under a Creative Commons Licence

She is photographed kneeling demurely in a blue dress in the midst of an avalanche of envelopes. Each one is addressed ‘SAY NO TO NEW EU MIGRANTS / NEWS DESK / DAILY EXPRESS’. Blonde, blue-eyed, 22 perhaps, she holds up a random example and stares with a strange fixity at the reader. By a happy coincidence the standard second-class stamp in Britain is blue, so most of the letters are white with blue eyes too. Arranged next to this image are others, smaller, showing the Romanians and Bulgarians who are ‘taking over the West End [of London]’. These too are women: bare-footed crones, one of them on crutches, their backs turned. They wear black headscarves and black dresses and carry their possessions around in large black bin bags.

Such are the terms of the current ‘debate’ over immigration and it isn’t only Britain’s notorious ‘tabloids’. A former foreign secretary has helpfully predicted explosive outcomes in Sheffield, where the new arrivals are judged to behave disrespectfully. Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced that he is ‘sending a strong message’ by removing the right to out-of-work benefits before next January, when travel restrictions will be lifted on workers from Romania and Bulgaria. In fact an EU rule already ensures that any such benefits are paid by the home country to begin with, not the receiver country. Cameron’s ‘strong message’ turns out to be that he will play to the far-right gallery, or any other gallery, in return for votes.

The Romanian and Bulgarian governments claim there is no evidence that a massive exodus is imminent. To which the stock response is that the same was said 10 years ago, when working restrictions on Polish workers were removed and about half a million Poles moved to Britain, instead of the 12,000 predicted. But for now all that anybody knows is that nobody knows how many or how few will come.

While Cameron and others figure out how best to stoke and manage the hysteria for political advantage, and as EU Commissioners and BBC presenters earnestly rehearse the arguments on breakfast radio shows, I’m struck by the questions which never come up. Immigration from ‘new’ EU states is never discussed, for example, with any detailed reference to the ‘home countries’. The arrival of so many Poles after 2004, for example, is kept in a separate compartment from the disastrous ‘re-structuring’ after the collapse of Communism. Fifty-nine per cent of Poles were living below the poverty line in 2003. According to the World Bank, 40 per cent of young workers in Poland were unemployed in 2006.i Somehow this is (still) not viewed as relevant in the countries, principally Britain, to which so many Poles looked for an answer. What is it that these figures do not explain?

That is not a rhetorical question. A quadrupling of poverty levels and soaring youth unemployment were not the ‘freedoms’ Poles had in mind while they were carrying on their long struggle with a Moscow-backed Communist dictatorship. It wasn’t exactly capitalism in our sense of the term they wanted, either. The trade union which led that struggle, Solidarity, clearly stated that its aim was a mixed economy, with much of heavy industry remaining in state hands and many factories run as workers’ co-operatives. In this they had the support of a large majority of Poles. Washington had other ideas. It imposed re-structuring with the help of a compliant intellectual caste convinced that it was on the side of history.

In other words, if we are going to reduce this question to purely economic terms, let us at least attempt to tell the whole economic story, not just the local British one. Perhaps there is indeed cause for alarm, but perhaps that cause is not old women in black headscarves. What if the real cause is that the EU has come to serve too exclusively a particular version of capitalism?

Again, in the case of Romania now, how much discussion is there of the way pre-accession funds in that country served to sharpen inequalities?ii Of how little was made available for education? Of how much land, in a country where 40 per cent of the population still lives in the countryside, has been bought up by foreign companies? Will the tabloids shout from the roof-tops about that? The EU has consistently supported larger landowners at the expense of smallholders, triggering further rural poverty. This has played straight into the hands of the populist right, which duly passes its fury on to the Roma population. Is this irrelevant?

The sociologist David Ost has chronicled the way anger at rising inequality has been managed, in post-Communist Poland particularly, but elsewhere in the region tooiii. A similar approach might well be worth exploring in the context of current (West European) hysterics about migration. After all, those who point to declining living standards and pressure on jobs in Britain are not making it up. In Western Europe since the crash, as in Eastern Europe during the 1990s, serious criticism of capitalism is occasionally tolerated rather than fully included in the mainstream culture. Anger at what capitalism does must therefore find some other language. Ost argues that channelled along ethnic, cultural or religious fault-lines, this generates ‘movements of rage’. These serve to work off bad feeling but solve nothing because they by-pass the larger economic questions without which no full sense can be made of what is happening. If the post-1989 settlement in Europe essentially converted its eastern half into a reservoir of cheap labour for its western half, then that settlement should be replaced by a fairer one from which more people benefit.

To judge by much of the debate in Britain, this is a cultural issue too. These people must learn to ‘play by our rules’. Ost would see that as one more diversion, but that’s obviously not how it feels to those who explain the problem this way. So what happens if we take the cultural side of this at face value? What happens, for example, if we take the trouble to actually know something about it from the other side?

The Romanian case here is as instructive as any. Once again, the story is a longer one than the breakfast radio shows have time to tell. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travels to the country in the 1930s continue to sell as well as ever they did in the run-up to Christmas. Romanian émigrés during the Cold War later supplied the West with some of its most distinguished writers and artists, and the West was only too happy, then, to play the generous host. The philosophers Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, the playwright Eugene Ionesco, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi were all Romanian. In Britain, Miron Grindea, born in a Moldovan village in 1910, ran his superb magazine, ADAM (Arts Drama Architecture Music), from his flat in London for 40 years from the 1940s to the 1980s.

How curiously absent writers and artists (and architects and musicians) are from the current debate. Can it be that this supply of talent abruptly dried up in 1989? Can it be that Romanians suddenly have no more stories worth telling? Or is it that their western neighbours no longer want to hear them? Again, these questions sound more rhetorical than they are. Perhaps philosophy or sculpture or absurdist theatre are a bit high-cultural, a bit passé? Can one reasonably expect, after all, in this day and age, serious publishers to translate Romanian writers?

All right. What about films then? Between 2000 and 2010, Romania chronicled its situation in a number of excellent films out of all proportion to the country’s size, never mind its GDP. These were, predictably, marketed as a ‘Romanian New Wave’. Their spare aesthetic was largely a function of the economic conditions in which they were produced. With no money for special effects or large studios, everything was down to the writing and the acting, the camera work and the direction. The world was reminded of how much films could still say without recourse to familiar faces or exotic locations or computer-generated imagery.

In fairness, if the ‘New Wave’ tag was meant as a reference to the realism of these films, it was not far wrong. They do indeed address very directly the concerns of the society from which they emerged. Do you think you’re worried about migration? Actually, they are too (Occident, 2002). You’ve heard worrying stories about organized begging? Try the blackest and funniest comedy you will ever see on the subject (Filantropica, 2002). Worried about our decaying health service? Stop blaming Romanians for it and watch The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). You might be surprised how much like us they are.

Not reassured? Still worried about immigration? It so happens some of the best people from the New Wave have just made a film all about it. I’m an Old Communist Hag (2013) also broaches the sensitive subject of nostalgia for Communism. It does so with a sly wit, and it does so by asking just the sort of questions our ladies and gentlemen of the Press so rarely get around to. It asks questions about memory, about how dreams, like economies, east and west, collapse. It asks about youth unemployment and the mirage of a better life out west.

These Romanian films were creating quite a stir just a few years back. But fashions fade. Causes cool. How quiet all those former enthusiasts for Europe have gone. Has that girl in a blue dress left them speechless? When I’m an Old Communist Hag recently received its first London screening, not one single British paper reviewed it. This sober and sobering film, about western and eastern delusions alike, could hardly have been more timely.

The film is, by the way, as stringent and as groovily made-on-a-shoe-string as any of its predecessors. But it does, you should be warned, include conversations about things that actually matter. Whatever you do over the next month, be sure not to see it. It's on at the Curzon Soho in London until 5 December.

i See Chapter nine of The Shock Doctrine, Noami Klein, Allen Lane, 2007

ii See p.354 Theft of a Nation – Romania Since Communism, Tom Gallagher, Hurst & Co., London, 2005

iii The Defeat of Solidarity – Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe, Cornell University Press, 2005

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