Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, is reputed to have said: ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’
His words echo the current hostile campaign waged against Romanians and Bulgarians. During 2013 the British government repeated ad nauseam that come 1 January 2014 the country would be flooded by Bulgarian and Romanian hordes intent on living off the British taxpayer.
Cameron and his ministers enacted measures that would prevent EU arrivals from claiming unemployment benefits within the first three months. The problem is that these ‘new’ measures bring nothing new. Throughout the EU, Britain included, migrants cannot possibly claim unemployment benefits from their host country within their first three months. The EU’s very own free-movement rules are rather explicit. They do not allow for what the tabloids call “benefit tourism”. Eligibility for welfare throughout the Union is linked either to (1) past social security contributions; or (2) residency.
In the UK one can obtain contributory benefits only after having paid social security contributions over two years: new arrivals are thus automatically disqualified during their first three months in the country. Non-contributory benefits are linked to a requirement for long-term residency, available only to those who work, are students, or are self-sufficient.
It is true that a jobless person from Romania or Bulgaria is in fact entitled to seek employment in Britain and even register at a JobCentre. But the benefits they receive come from the Romanian or Bulgarian budgets. Under Article 64 of Regulation 883/20 EU citizens can export their unemployment benefits from one country to another for a period of three months.
A Neo-Colonial Approach
Why all the political fervour then? Some have argued that the cabinet used East European migration to divert attention away from its failure to handle the economic crisis, joblessness and social disadvantage. Rules on intra-EU migration are decided outside Westminster and criticising Brussels can win Tories votes from the likes of UKIP. The British Prime Minister wants to have the cake and eat it. He does not mind East European markets remaining open for UK goods and capital, despite competitive pressure on local small and medium enterprises there. But freedom of movement of people is treated differently from free movement of goods and capitals.
Indeed Mr Cameron does not mind Romanians and Bulgarians working hard to earn a livelihood the UK. But if they happen to become sick or have children they should leave the country or stay out of benefits. The coalition government is happy to abolish a long European tradition of labour protection.
East Europeans are Soft Targets for Racist Attacks
The systematic rhetorical attacks against East Europeans in the public sphere are easy to explain. They are European, white, and predominantly Christian. Denigrating them is not a big concern, nor are blanket characterisations as beggars and criminals.
Such statements vilify these communities and violate the dignity of all their members. The campaign has resulted in a ‘intimidating’, ‘hostile’, ‘degrading’, ‘humiliating’ and ‘offensive’ environment for Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK within the meaning of racial harassment, as defined by Article 2 (3) of the EU Equality Directive. A study this week revealed that many Bulgarian and Romanian medics, who had lived and worked at the NHS for years, have experienced an upturn in hostility.
Last autumn, student loans were frozen only for Romanian and Bulgarian recipients, including those who had habitually lived in the UK for years. This was as part of an investigation into a “suspicious” number of beneficiaries from those two countries. In other words, the authorities deemed it was sufficient to be a Bulgarian or a Romanian to be considered “suspicious.” As a result these two student communities were stigmatised as cheaters because of wrongs committed by individuals who happened to be their compatriots.
Further, politicians and journalists rarely avoid prejudicial or pejorative references. They refer to ethnicity or nationality any time they report an offence committed by Romanian or Bulgarian individuals.
Yet, most disappointingly, the vilifying campaign never brought the outcry it could have triggered, had it targeted any other migrant community, especially those linked to Britain’s colonial past. Britain perceives itself as a tolerant nation with a rich tradition of diversity and multi-culturalism. This certainly cannot be denied. But the recent wave of discrimination against East Europeans reveals that tyranny, as well as tolerance, can be conveniently selective.