In the last few months it has been almost impossible to avoid xenophobic headlines surrounding the lifting of restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens’ (that is, EU citizens’) right to work in the UK and other EU countries. And it hasn’t even happened yet. Indeed, Ukip’s Eastleigh by-election success was largely based on scaremongering that 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians might come to claim welfare benefits in the UK in January 2014. It is worth pointing out here that Bulgaria’s entire population is 7,3 million and Romania’s population is 21,7 million. And yet, a one-man show, that is Ukip, was able to panic lots of nice, educated, fair minded, middle-class Brits to vote for them on the basis that the entire population of two EU countries will come to claim benefits in the UK next year. Ukip did not win, but they came close. Sadly, they did succeed in tainting public perception for good. Rational people know that just because 29 million citizens have a choice of free movement, that does not mean all 29 million of them will come to the UK to claim state benefits. But when it comes to foreigners in any shape or form, rationality is hard to find in British public discourse.
148,363 individuals signed an e-petition asking the government to extend restrictions on Bulgarians’ and Romanians’ right to work for another 5 years and in response the Parliament debated this petition on 22nd of April, as they promised they would for any e-petition that gathers more than 100,000 signatures. The farcical bit is that apart from leaving the EU, there is nothing that can be done by the House of Commons or any other parliament in the EU.
What will happen in January 2014 is actually an historic event—for the first time after many years all members of the European Union will be equal. In May 2011, restrictions were lifted across the EU for other new members: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. Their citizens have the right to work—as employed or self-employed—without a work permit throughout the EU, including Iceland and Norway.
The questions to ask here are: Do you remember reading about this ‘tide’ of EU migrants who were coming ‘here’, wherever that might be, to claim benefits? Why wasn’t there the same concern that the combined population of the above eight countries will ‘swamp us’ (whoever this ‘us’ may be)? How about Greece or Spain or Italy or Malta? Their economies are plummeting, should we introduce restrictions on their citizens and prevent them from coming ‘here’ and ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘benefits’? Or should we just ban everyone like Switzerland? What is it about Romania and Bulgaria that is so scary to the original EU club? ‘What’, or better, ‘who’ are they afraid of? I leave you to ponder over that can of worms for a moment.
This brings me to another historic event that happened in the last week of May. Following Nigel Farage’s visit to Bulgaria in April 2013, a group of MPs, members of the Home Affairs Select Committee, travelled to Romania at the end of May, as part of their inquiry into the transitional restrictions on the free movement of workers. Around the same time, John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House, was on an official visit at the invitation of the Romanian parliament, supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he delivered a speech about the role and importance of parliaments in the democratic system. Now there is nothing historic in that, until you hear what he said. It has been reported that our Mr Speaker, during his visit, not only came out as a friend of Romania, he “appeared to give his support for policies that have allowed eastern Europeans to travel to Britain and work” reported Telegraph. And, as if that was not enough, he, the Speaker dared to criticise the British media:
“He also gave a press conference where he criticised the British media for raising doubts about immigration, accusing some journalists of “negative and discriminatory” reporting on the issue. British media coverage of immigration is not reflective of British opinion on the issue, Mr Bercow told reporters in Bucharest. He added: “A free media is a vital part of a democracy. But the media is not the Government and it is not Parliament,” he said. “I am here as a friend of Romania and someone who sees the benefits of immigration.”
Now that’s historic!
John Bercow’s decision to speak out was immediately questioned, because as the Speaker he is not supposed to speak. He is supposed to stay neutral and above politics, as was claimed by some Conservative MPs. Our friend Nigel, called it a ‘disgrace’. It is ironic that it is Nigel Farage and the likes who often complain about how they are ‘not allowed’ to talk about immigration and that they are labelled as racists, and yet as soon as they hear something in support of immigration, which they do not like, they attack it.
I do not think that everyone who has concerns about immigration or who is against immigration is racist. It is not racist to talk about immigration, unless you talk about it in a racist way.
The Speaker was within his parliamentary and moral right to speak and make the comments he made and in the context he made them. We should praise his courage and leadership in being truthful about issues that are unpopular. It is those who spread lies and scaremonger about voiceless minorities who are the ones who deprive our Parliament, our media and our country of good repute. Mr Speaker was merely repairing the damage.