As of January 2014, Bulgarians and Romanians will be allowed to work legally across all countries of the EU. Earlier this year, when the EU's clock started counting down the days to the lifting of all work restrictions, it instigated a backlash in the media and fervent parliamentary discussions across the continent.
This was particularly apparent in the UK, where things went as far as a suggested “Don’t come to England, you won’t like it here” anti-immigration campaign. It was to show the gloomier side of the country: murky weather, high taxes and, ultimately, proof that London streets are not paved with gold. Meanwhile, alleged UK Independence Party “experts” have made the line between discussing immigration and fuelling prejudices even thinner, with unrealistic predictions that as many as 26 million job hunters are heading for the UK. If that’s true, Bulgaria and Romania will be deserted come January.
But while the British government has not officially said how many Eastern Europeans are expected to arrive in Britain, rumoured numbers have reached nearly 500,000. Campaign groups such as MigrationWatch have predicted that 250,000 Bulgarians and Romanians will come over the next five years, while Philip Hollobone (a Conservative MP) has gone as far as suggesting that a total of 425,000 will enter the UK within two years. Meanwhile, Bulgarian ambassador to the UK Konstantin Dimitrov foresees a humble 8,000 to 10,000 newcomers in 2014.
Concerns centre on allegations that most immigrants will move to the UK just to use and abuse its social system. However the BBC’s Newsnight dared to disagree. “In Bulgaria, 4.2 per cent of those surveyed are interested in coming to the UK,” said Sanchia Berg, who led the programme's survey in April. “However, they said they would only move with a firm offer of work, either from an agency or directly from a company.”
And Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch UK, told BBC Radio 4 back in August: “It’s not surprising [that Bulgarians and Romanians want to come to the UK], because take-home pay here will be four or five times what these workers will get at home.”
Bulgaria has been gripped by poverty and corruption ever since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and is still among the poorest countries in Europe. For many of those who chose to stay after 2007 when the country joined the EU, the lifting of the employment restriction won't change much now. The only novelty that removing the work barriers will bring is to reduce illegal immigration and provide better working conditions.
As for the anti-immigration crusades in England, studies suggest there are 800,000 UK nationals living in Spain and 250,000 in France. Plus, as crime prevention minister Jeremy Browne told the New Statesman earlier this year, “Bulgarians and Romanians are only complying with the same rules as British people who live in Spain, who work in Germany or have holiday homes in France.” Or in Bulgaria, for that matter.
Nelly Gocheva is Monocle's Toronto bureau chief.