Wednesday 19 February 2014
Amid the hysteria surrounding Romanian immigration at the beginning of this year, something crucial was forgotten: borders open both ways. As the English tabloids were throwing a tantrum about the impending "Romanian invasion", the would-be-intruders were preparing for an invasion of their own: 1 January 2014 marked the day when Romania's honeymoon period as a new EU member came to an end and, under EU law, the country was obliged to open up its land market to foreign investors.
As a country with almost 5 million peasant farmers – a quarter of the population – this was a matter of serious concern. The peasant farming economy has long been eroding under the open-market policies pushed by the European Union and the Romanian state. Squeezed out of the market by the agri-investment giants who take the bulk of the EU's common agricultural policy subsidies, small farmers are facing a difficult choice: sell up and move west to look for work, or hold tight and navigate a life of increasing rural poverty.
But this isn't really new. Over the past decade, almost 1 million hectares of Romania's land have been bought up by foreign companies, using legal loopholes left open by the state. As part of Romania's transition from communism to a modern, neoliberal economy, the movement of peasants off the land has been billed by the government as an inevitability, a hitch on the road to becoming a prosperous, western economy. Eventually, the government insists, everything will level out: the old will die off and the young will move away. This, as Achim Irimescu, the former secretary of state for agriculture, puts it, is "the natural solution" to Romania's peasant problem.
Yet this isn't social policy but market mechanics, the amalgamation of Romania into a global economy that is driven solely by the accumulation of wealth and facilitated by politics. Peasants are an obstacle to this because they are not great wealth producers, yet they are the owners, collectively, of a resource that is worth a lot to investors – land, and everything that lies below and sits upon it. The antipathy towards peasants is motivated purely because they are standing in the way of a few people making a lot of money.
There are echoes here of the changes to enclosure laws that began in Britain in the 16th century. Before this time, the English landscape looked similar to the way much of Romania still looks today. Peasants grazed their animals on common land and grew crops on open strips, accompanied by the wildlife now so absent from most of England, from glow worms through to corncrakes. The enclosure acts, pushed through parliament by the well connected landowning rich, allowed landowners to appropriate public land for private benefit. In doing so, they created a landless working class who lived as labourers, uprooted and flexible. Farming became more profitable but many were deprived of their living.
In England, the enclosure process lasted over three centuries; in Romania, the same is happening over the course of three decades. The communal, state-owned lands on which, up until few years ago, 90% of farmers grazed their livestock, have all but disappeared, rented off at cheap rates by the authorities to foreign companies.
Meanwhile, the rural population is growing. Each year more than 100,000 people move back to the countryside from Romania's cities, where prices are rising but jobs are scarce and poorly paid. On the farm, says Dumitru Sandu, an expert in immigration at the University of Bucharest, "people can at least feed themselves. But mostly they don't last long. The young move west on temporary labour contracts, bringing money back home to subsidise their families."
It is no coincidence, then, that 1 January 2014 was a double-edged sword, marking the opening of western borders to Romanian immigrants as well as those of Romania to western investors. Indeed, such a trade off was a fundamental of Romania's accession to the EU.
Yet we cannot direct all blame towards Brussels. Those same countries which are most resistant to immigration are often the most ardent proponents of the free market which has created this situation and the same countries that are profiting out of the opening up of their eastern European neighbours.
Meanwhile, Bucharest knows exactly what it is doing. Poland and Hungary faced the same situation, yet both countries implemented laws that to an extent increase the security of their country's landowners. Their reasons may have been populist and nationalist, but the results of the laws are a stand against the hegemonic policy of the EU and a relative safeguard to their peasants. The Romanian government has no such plan; here the land policy lies directly in line with that of the EU, a policy which can make Romania's powerful very rich, very quickly.