By Peter Stanford
18 Jan 2013
'I’d go to England,” says Octavian Gheorghe as he stands at his stall where he sells traditional cured meats and cheese at a big open-air market in central Bucharest. “But at my age [late forties], it’s too late for me. For the young, though, this is the solution: go to the rich countries like England because Romania has no economic future to offer them.”
His enthusiasm chimes with warnings issued this week that Britain is facing a flood of Romanian and Bulgarian economic migrants when work permit restrictions on them end in December and the European Union labour market is thrown open. British ministers are refusing to reveal their projections of how many may come – conscious of how wrong the last government got it over Polish immigration in 2004 – but one Conservative MP has put it as high as 425,000.
As he offers me a nip of his homemade wild cherry liqueur, Gheorghe reels off a list of reasons why the next generation of his countrymen will be leaving. “There are no jobs here,” he begins. Unemployment in Romania officially stands at 7 per cent, but many say the real figure is much higher because there are no benefits worth registering for. “And then,” he goes on, his face darkening, “Romania is so corrupt. The situation is not going to get any better.”
As if to emphasise his point, a market inspector in his official jacket, walkie-talkie in hand, approaches and tells us that taking photographs in this public place is forbidden. We must have a permit, he insists. In other words, he wants a bribe.
Elsewhere in the market – once we have given the grasping official the slip in the mid-morning fog – Ion Viorel on the pots-and-pans stall tells how he has already been an economic migrant, spending six years in Germany and one in Italy. (The latter is Romania’s biggest trading partner and the two have a natural link in their Latin-based and – to this untrained ear – remarkably similar mother tongues.) He worked as a labourer on construction sites.
Did he have the right “work papers”? He just smiles and shrugs. “I have a house that I am building in the countryside, 30 kilometres from here,” he explains, “and I couldn’t afford to finish it with what I earn in Romania. In Italy and Germany I could get 1,000 euros a month. Here, the most I get is 500.”
These cash-in-hand sums sound simple but the lure of Italy, just a day’s drive from western Romania, has faded as its economy has plunged into crisis. The same is true with Spain, another traditional magnet for migrants, especially among the Roma people (most Romanians call them gypsies) who make up five per cent of the population here. Spain has even introduced restrictions on Romanian workers. And likewise, in neighbouring Bulgaria – with the lowest average wages in the EU – the time-honoured migration route to indebted Greece has also been choked off.
So will they now turn their gaze towards Britain? “I have a cousin who works in London,” says Viorel. “He washes cars there, but he tells me that your Queen doesn’t want foreigners anymore.” The political furore in London over Romanian migrants has already filtered back to this Bucharest market. But, as Viorel and (possibly) his cousin demonstrate, the work permit system is already being bypassed. Those Romanians willing to do unskilled, off-the-boat jobs are already here.
By another stall I meet Dana Mizileanu, a member of the Roma community. “I went to France,” she tells me, “but it was a sad experience. I couldn’t find a job. My family had to send money to bring me home. Now I believe things are better in Romania.”
So she won’t be tempted to migrate again? “I was thinking about Britain,” she answers. “I have a little girl of 13. Perhaps we will try together. Maybe it would be better.” And does the forthcoming scrapping of the work permit regime make that more likely? She looks blank.
What lies behind some of the fears expressed in Britain about an influx of Romanians after December is the often unspoken assumption that for Romanians read Roma. And the Roma travellers, who camped out around Marble Arch in central London during the Olympics last summer, gave such migrants a very bad name indeed. Police reported a marked upturn in street crime as a result of their presence. But Dana’s casual attitude to coming to Britain makes clear that relaxing work permit restrictions will make no difference to many in this community because they operate outside any law.
At the other end of the labour market, though, there is already an estimated 125,000 well-qualified Romanians working in Britain with the required documents. One lament I hear in Bucharest is that you can no longer find a doctor working in Romania because they are all in Britain. To find out if the opening up of the labour market will encourage more of Romania’s educated and ambitious young professionals to follow suit, I make my way over to the university quarter.
“I’m more likely to go to Germany,” says Stefan (he doesn’t give his surname), a 20-year-old studying for a degree in information technology. Romania has a high number of graduates in this in-demand subject – which may explain why the country has the second fastest WiFi speeds in the world after South Korea. “Germany has a strong economy and I prefer its culture.”
But his classmate, Georgiana Stefan, is reluctant to think about leaving. “I’ve had friends from high school who have gone to Britain and come back. They found it too hard to assimilate. They missed their family and their culture.”
In the Fire Club, a student bar in the Old City area, Aura Theodora Topa, an economics undergraduate at Bucharest’s prestigious Economic Science Academy, is more emphatic. “In many ways this country sucks right now. Wages are low and we have laws but no politician sticks to them. Still I couldn’t leave. My generation has to stay to give leadership for change.”
Next to her, Diana Duitescu, 19, is shaking her head. “There are just more possibilities in London,” she interjects. Like every other student I meet here, her English is perfect, the product of good schooling and a youth culture that laps up English-speaking music, films, TV and video games. “I have a friend who worked in Britain in the summer,” she says, “living with a family and doing babysitting. She earned £300 a month. That is what a manager here earns.”
“But everything costs so much more,” Aura counters.
Diana refuses to be put off. With Romania and Bulgaria going through painful austerity measures that have halted the rapid economic growth that followed the collapse of communism 23 years ago, such debates are not unusual. The young look northwards and see high wages and stable politics. Migration inevitably tempts them. But does their interest go beyond talk?
Those Romanians who study the subject are sceptical. “I haven’t seen anything to justify talk of hundreds of thousands,” says Bianca Toma, a journalist specialising in EU affairs at the highbrow Bucharest daily paper Adevarul (“The Truth”). “The changes may help those who are working abroad illegally to regularise their situations, but those who really want to leave have already done it. I’d put the figure at thousands.”
Her colleague Iulia Rosu, who spent two years studying and working in Britain, is equally unconvinced. “I went to England because I loved English culture, but if I was thinking about money, England wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of my list. I’d go to Sweden or Denmark or Germany. They have the strong economies.”