Read the popular press in the U.K. and Germany over the past months, and you would hold the following truths to be self-evident:
That Romanians are toothless scroungers who want to steal your job, or failing that, they will steal from your country's social security system;
That there is a flood of as many as 29 million of these people who are about to overwhelm Western Europe (if you bundle in the equally hapless and evil Bulgarians);
And that unless politicians act now, the U.K. and other countries face, according to the Daily Mail newspaper, a “potentially huge political and social disaster.”
None of this has much to do with reality. The recession can explain some of the hysteria, but there is also a strong whiff of anti-Roma racism in much of the debate -- Romania is home to Europe's largest Roma population, still known to some as Gypsies.
This week, I took a busy low-cost flight from Bucharest to Paris, and none of the Romanian passengers looked anything like the foul-smelling hordes that Europe's media are making them out to be. They were a normal-looking mix of students; beefy or wiry men who would not seem out of place on building sites; tourists; men with ties and briefcases; and some smartly dressed women.
What is going on? The gist of the argument from some media and politicians in the U.K. and Germany is that next year the remaining labor restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians working in fellow European Union countries will be lifted, at which point the floodgates will open.
These two Balkan nations joined the EU in 2007. Their people already have the right to work in the rest of the EU, subject to restrictions that vary by country. In the U.K., for example, a carpenter must officially be self-employed rather than an employee. Ending this rule is likely to make a minimal difference in terms of attracting Romanians to work in the U.K. Likewise, the media make out that people will move west only to abuse social-security benefits, although in reality there is little evidence of this to support such claims.
Germany is also doing what it can to resist further integration of Romanians and Bulgarians into the EU. Neither country is part of the passport-free zone of 26 countries known as the Schengen Area, and they want to join. Romanians don't need a visa to go to other EU countries, but so long as they aren’t in Schengen they still have to show their passports and pass through immigration controls at the Schengen Area border. On March 7, facing a German veto on them being admitted to the zone, Romania and Bulgaria decided not to force a vote. The EU will return to it at the end of the year.
The two countries say they have done a huge amount to beef up their borders in readiness to become, in effect, the German and French frontier on joining Schengen. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich says he fears that corruption could allow undesirables to bribe their way to acquiring Romanian and Bulgarian Schengen visas.
It seems clear that Romanians and Bulgarians, of whom there are relatively few in the U.K., are being used by parts of the media in their unrelenting anti-EU campaign. In Germany, where their numbers are relatively modest, too, certain politicians are using the issue to look tough before the country’s election in September.
Next, nobody knows how many Romanians and Bulgarians are already abroad, and the figures are fluid anyway because many come and go. However, the number for Romanians is probably more than 2 million and could be as many as 3 million. Less than 1 million are believed to be in Spain and slightly more than 1 million in Italy. So, if anyone would be worried about them, it might be the Italians and the Spanish. Yet they are not. Romanians say that most of those who wanted to go abroad to work have already done so.
Of course, there are Romanian and Bulgarian migrants who can't find jobs in the countries that they go to, but they are a minority. As this analysis by the German Marshall Fund of the United States shows, 80 percent of those in Germany are employed, of which: “Twenty-two percent are highly skilled and 46 percent are skilled, pursuing exactly those professions that Germany so urgently needs. These migrants often fill jobs that Germans don’t want to do, such as seasonal work.” Not all of those who don’t have a job are on social security -- that figure includes students.
While Friedrich in Germany looks tough talking about abuses of freedom of movement by those “who only come to receive social welfare,” some of the serious press in Germany smells an election campaign. The Suddeutsche Zeitung adds: “Friedrich is merely stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, even as the German government is actively seeking to attract the best-educated people in the crisis countries to Germany.”
In Romania, the opprobrium being heaped on the country from aboard is grating. “We are used to it, but it does not take away the annoyance,” says Oana Popescu, the director of the Global Focus Center research group.
So why do these claims resonate, when the evidence for them points to only a small number of criminals and benefit cheats, which exist in any population? No one is complaining about the Romanians working as nurses in Germany, or as doctors in the U.K., or about Romanian “badante”, as women who care for the elderly in Italy are called. Much of the debate, and almost of all the pictures, focus on Roma migrants.
Poor and discriminated against at home, many Roma have upped sticks for greener pastures abroad, and the high visibility of some of them -- for example, begging on the Paris metro, or selling the Big Issue newspaper for the homeless in London -- inevitably attracts attention.
Mircea Geoana, a former Romanian foreign minister, says that, “in times of economic difficulties it is the old European syndrome. First it was the Jews, then the Roma and now the nations on the periphery.” The campaigns have also damaged his country’s reputation. “There has been a gradual and now accelerated degradation of the way we are perceived," he says.
A lot of EU money has been spent in Romania over the past 20 years to help integrate Roma into society better. “If a young Roma drops out of school at the age of 9, there is a 59 percent chance of him ending up in jail, but if he leaves at 13 that drops to 9 percent,” Geoana says. Still, he admits that “the strategy has been impeccable, but the results have been modest.”
There has always been a high level of antipathy toward Roma in Romania and it seems to be getting worse. The hostility toward Romanians in other parts of the EU makes some Romanians angry -- at the Roma. Vlad Radu, a supply-chain manager in a bottling plant, says that when he and his family went on holiday in Paris, they didn't want to speak Romanian on the metro because they didn't want to be associated with the Romanian Roma who seemed to get on at every stop to busk and beg.
At the same time, many Romanians note with some satisfaction that the number of Roma in the country has plummeted in recent years, because they have gone abroad. Now, the Roma have become “a European problem,” says Radu. “You tell us to integrate them but we have failed, so you tell us how.”
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)