Before I write the few small things I want to say about Romania, I want to make one thing entirely clear. I’m biased. Biased in favour of Romania. I know the country pretty well – I’m married to a Romanian woman, and have visited the country many times over the last ten years or so. I know a lot of Romanian people – and like them. There is, as a consequence, no way that I could possibly write anything about Romania that wasn’t biased…. and it’s also true that this post is based on pretty much entirely anecdotal information – from my various trips to Romania over the years, and in particular over this last week. I’m not going to attempt to give an economic analysis, I’m not going to try to ‘prove’ anything about how many Romanians will come over here to the UK, how many of them will claim what kind of benefits, how many of them will commit what kind of crimes etc etc. I don’t have that data – but neither, I suspect, do the people making most of the claims about what will happen over the next few years as a result of the changes in rules for Romanians and Bulgarians.
What I do want to say, though, is that the way that Romanians are being portrayed in the press and by politicians seems to have almost no resonance with my experience of the country. Romania is not a country full of poor, desperate people looking for the first opportunity to leave and to come to the UK to steal our jobs/leech off our benefits/drain our health service/run criminal gangs. It’s not a country, as some have tried to tell me recently, with a culture that is somehow alien to ours, incompatible, bound to cause conflict. It really isn’t. It’s a place where people are, once you get to know them, very like the people of the UK. The kinds of conversations I’ve had over the last week would seem very familiar to most people: worries about the education system, discussions of fashion, a mother bemoaning her daughter’s love of One Direction, complaints about self-serving and incompetent politicians (!).
I spent most of the week in Bucharest – and it’s a European capital that anyone who’s spent much time in Europe should find familiar. Yes, there are many of the old-style communist blocks, but there are also old churches and museums, brand new shopping malls, drive-through McDonalds, big, out-of town shops like IKEA and Decathlon. The images you may find on the pages of the Daily Mail of shanty-towns and peasant farms do exist – but to imagine that they represent ‘the real’ Romania would be as accurate as assuming that the abysmally manipulative TV portrayals in programmes like ‘Benefit Street’ are a real representation of life for most Britons.
Unsurprisingly, the subject of the change in rules for Romanians in the UK did come up in conversation a few times, but mostly with wry smiles. Most of the Romanians I know are fundamentally pragmatic people – many people who’ve had to live through repression have had to learn how to ‘find a way’ to solve problems, rather than have them solved for them. They find the current obsession of the British press and politicians amusing for the most part. They don’t think anyone will change their behaviour – those that wanted to come to the UK have already come to the UK. The economy in Romania seems to have bottomed out, and is turning a corner – why would they want to leave now?
That’s the other thing – Romanians, surprisingly enough, generally rather like Romania. They don’t have a particular desire to leave – and the idea that they’re all desperate to come over here is patently ridiculous. As for those twin red herrings of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’, well, they’re both complete jokes. The Romanians I know generally trust Romanian doctors, and the Romanian health service, far more than they would trust the UK’s system. If they got ill when in the UK, I’d expect them to fly home to get treatment, not to use the UK’s system. And Romanians, just like Brits, don’t generally like the idea of benefits. They’re proud people – in David Cameron’s detestable terms, ‘hard-working people’ – for whom benefits are a safeguard, not a ‘lifestyle choice’. I notice, however, that it’s the same kind of people in the UK who have fallen for the hideous ‘striver-scrounger’ agenda who somehow imagine that immigrants are part of that same pattern. It isn’t real in the UK, and it isn’t real for Romanian immigrants either.
Anyway, that’s all by-the-by. In practice, I didn’t see any floods of Romanians queuing up to enter the UK. My flight back from Bucharest to Luton was no more full than the flight I had taken the other way. There was no desperation – just ordinary people flying on ordinary flights. I was a touch disappointed not to be met by Keith Vaz or a few journalists from the Daily Mail…
…and even if Romanians do come here in big numbers, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Immigration is generally a good thing, once we overcome our fears. Then again, I would say that. I’m biased.