The following is a reflection by Ruxandra Trandafoiu, a graduate of the MSc Nationalism Studies, on the eve of the publication of her new book:
In January 2014 current labour restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians are being lifted in the UK and other EU countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Spain, for Romanians only). As I am writing, the Duchess of Cambridge is giving birth. For once, the ‘imminent’ arrival of ‘millions’ of Romanians is not headline news. It makes me realize that I would actually prefer to read about Eastern European labour migration. Not necessarily in The Daily Mail, though.
In the autumn of 1998, freshly arrived in Edinburgh, I learnt a very useful lesson in one of my first Monday classes in nationalism theory with Professor Nairn. When it comes to ethnicity and nationhood, most terminology becomes unstable, fluid, coloured by the speaker’s personal and ideological positioning. This premise was easily tested with my new Japanese, English, Estonian, Scottish, Hungarian, Quebecois and American colleagues. It became clear that migration, discrimination, human and labour rights were best served by a frank and open conversation aiming to dismantle the fears, the misconceptions, the empty claims. I also realized that an open conversation required the participation of alternative voices, those certainly prepared to take a more rational and logical approach to emotional or politically sensitive issues, as well as those prepared to learn a new ‘language’, test a new terminology that would help us talk about migration in a fairer way.
The journey I started in Edinburgh in 1998 took me to finally publishing a book related to the issue of migration and implicitly nationalism, which is now out with Berghahn Books. Diaspora Online: Identity Politics and Romanian Migrants was a clear attempt on my part to allow the voices of the usually unheard to join the conversations (so I conducted several interviews and hundreds of exchanges with migrants over a period of four years) and also change the way we talk about migration (avoiding to see migrants as victims, for example, which is a frequent academic trap, or indeed villains, as it is the case with the right wing press).
This journey makes me well qualified to attempt to answer the question that keeps newspaper editors and think tanks like Demos awake at the moment: will millions of Bulgarians and Romanians arrive in the UK after January 2014? And the answer is…. nobody knows. But here’s my educated guess. Bulgarians? No. Some nations travel and some don’t. Bulgarians don’t. Romanians do. When I worked as an interpreter for the then Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon in 2000-2001, the asylum applications from Bulgarians were almost non-existent. The Home Office didn’t even have a resident Bulgarian interpreter on site. But they had ten Romanian interpreters booked every day to deal with the hundreds of applications made weekly. I feel for the handful of Bulgarians scattered in the UK, who day after day see Bulgarians (only a small nation of merely seven million) being lumped together with, in my experience, the more travel loving, experience seeking Romanians (twenty million). Size matters, as the Scots would tell you.
So far then, the Daily Mail could be right, we could expect many Romanians to start looking for jobs in the UK once work permit restrictions are lifted in 2014. However, as I argue in my book, it is unlikely that mass Romanian migration to the UK will happen, unlike Italy where between one and two million Romanians now constitute the largest ethnic minority in the country. It’s more than weather that differentiates the two cases. The interviews I conducted with Romanian migrants, as well as the personal stories encountered online in diasporic forums tell me that the cost of migrating to the UK is high, possibly too high. And it’s not just the distance (Romania is at the other end of the continent), the recently hiked up plane fares, or the difficulty of bringing along a family (most Romanian migrants are in their mid to late thirties, often with young families). We are also talking about the cultural costs. Romanian is a Neo-Latin language. Learning Italian is relatively easy even for Romanians who do not speak another foreign language. Learning English, on the other hand takes patience, going to a good school where English is properly taught or otherwise paying a lot of money for private tuition. You cannot wing it. Then there are the cultural peculiarities. In Italy or Spain we Romanians feel at home. We are all Latin, for better or worse. But in the UK, the lack of chaos, bribery, clientelistic relationships, the order, the cleanliness, the absence of emotional outbursts, seem almost alien. Many Romanians in the UK complain about the consequent sense of uneasiness, the constant nostalgia, the longing to leave. If we take into account both the pecuniary and emotional cost of immigrating to the UK, one thus begins to understand why the Romanian community in the UK remains relatively small (70-100,000, including post WWII and communist emigration) and it is mainly limited to professionals and the self-employed, among which the rate of intermarriage is high. Romania’s EU accession in 2007 has managed to bring over a younger, usually non-English speaking, ill adjusted and hence temporary manual labour, but nowhere near the numbers displayed by other Eastern European nations.
Will January 2014 change this trend? Well, the costs remain the same, making permanent migration difficult. Temporary or circular labour migration, on the other hand, will definitely increase. Do I believe this will constitute a mass ‘exodus’ or huge ‘wave’? No. Through my research I have detected the formation of a certain category of migrants, the itinerant ones, who move from one country to another in search of auspicious economic conditions and who can exploit their rich migratory capital. But they are just that: itinerant. Am I certain of my predictions? No. In the same way not even my respected nationalism professors in Edinburgh – Tom Nairn, David McCrone, Lindsay Paterson, Jonathan Hearn – could swear that Scotland will become independent in 2014. The economic situation in Italy or Spain (or Ireland, the former target of Romanian computer specialists) is still deteriorated; many Romanians may choose to make the move to the UK.
So, to recapitulate: itinerant or circular labour migration will increase in the short term, but let’s not forget that in the main we are talking about skilled migrants who are likely to contribute more than they take out of the country. This type of migration rarely leads to permanent settlement. Moreover, this category is very much welcome. One of the primary reasons for freedom of movement being one of the normative pillars of the European Union is purely economical. The UK needs foreign labour and welcomes it behind the negative political and journalistic rhetoric purported for populist reasons.
The second big category of arrivals will be Romanian Roma. This is the arrival that creates the fear. Not because it is permanent – the Roma are the original experts in circular and temporary migration – but because this might bring along certain social costs. The most discriminated ethnic group in Europe is not welcomed anywhere. They are not wanted in Romania and they aren’t wanted in the EU, as their expulsion from Italy and France in recent years under the indifferent gaze of EU authorities has proven. They will come and they will go, as they have done before. They have become a European ‘problem’ nobody wants to deal with. Their ‘difference’ will be easy to spot and they will quickly become the target (they are already) of the conservative press.
These are the only certainties that we have. In true academic fashion, I have to avoid to give a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question: are we to expect the arrival of large numbers of Romanians in January 2014?
Ruxandra Trandafoiu is Reader in Communication at Edge Hill University. She is the author of Diaspora Online: Identity Politics and Romanian Migrants and the co-editor of The Globalization of Musics in Transit: Music Migration and Tourism.