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Italian vespa in Durham, UK
Immigration is a hot topic in the UK and the current political campaign is no exception. In the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 7 May 2015, politicians from different wings are getting tougher on EU migrants. Focusing mainly on migrants coming from Southern Europe and, especially, on the Italian community living in the UK, E&M's author Nicoletta Enria takes us through some of the scenarios about how this election could affect EU migrants and their lives in a country where they don't have the right to vote.
From the time of the Roman Empire to Ellis Island and now taking to the streets of London, Italians have always been known to migrate and make their presence known throughout the world. As youth unemployment in Italy soars, hitting a staggering 43.9% in November 2014, young Italians cannot help but feel anger, disappointment and resentment towards a system that offers them no hope and begin to look for a brighter future abroad. This swarm of educated youngsters, the "escaping brains" as they are known in Italy due to the fact that many of them have university degrees, are now predominantly settling in the UK. Officially, there are said to be 600 thousand Italians today in the UK, of which 60% are under the age of 35. What is life like for all these hopeful young Italians in the UK and how will the potential outcomes of the UK General Elections in May affect them?
In Italy, partially due to the role of the press in glorifying the UK and Germany, young Italians are brought up believing that all hope lies in migrating there. More and more hopeful Italians are travelling to the UK and finding themselves living in squalid, cheap hostels to avoid transport costs and expensive rent. Paid minimum wage, sometimes even less, they are ideal for low-income jobs as they provide big companies with cheap labour. In their dream for a better life not just Italian migrants, but also Portuguese, Spanish and Greek youngsters are facing this similar unexpected economic hardship, in an attempt to escape the financial crisis in their home countries. There is also a large community of young Italians studying at British boarding schools and universities in an attempt to profit from one of the best education systems in Europe and broaden their opportunities to obtain jobs in more places around the world. With a growing anti-immigration discourse in the UK, seen in articles such as this one by the Sun referring to Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Spanish migrants as "PIGS [that] are here to stay", integration is a privilege that not all of these young migrants have. Despite this, plenty of Italian migrants I have spoken to, myself included, thoroughly enjoy living the UK and feel fully integrated in their home away from home.
Many Europeans are still fighting against discrimination
The concepts of "integration" and "otherness" have been interpreted variously in EU countries, with differing perspectives shaped by local cultural and political contexts. Policies against discrimination have been avidly pursued in an attempt to make immigrants feel home wherever they go in Europe. But social exclusion is always lurking. Ana Maria Ducuta, a Romanian student of Comparative Politics and contributor to the Centre for European Policy Evaluation, gives her personal experience of discrimination and reflects on immigration and related EU actions.
Even in our modern Europe, xenophobia is still a plague. Eastern Europeans such as Bulgarians or Romanians who go abroad are regular victims of xenophobic feelings. Eastern Europeans are regarded by some Western societies as barbarians and in some cases criminals too. On many occasions when I went abroad, after people got to know my Romanian friends and me, they have affirmed "we are good people despite the fact that we are Romanians" and that "we know more foreign languages than they ever will". You never get to understand the harmful nature of xenophobic stereotypes until you are faced with a real situation in which you are made to feel unwelcome before you have done or even said a thing.
Another week has flown away but not without two of E&M's editors sharing some articles that got them thinking about our continent. This time around, Edgar and Veronica have picked up some online pieces about the value of history and the aftershocks of an Italian earthquake, passing through the Scottish referendum, a law in favour of the rights of transsexuals and Europe's immigration debate.
Edgar, Baby editor
HISTORY AND HUMILITY
In one of the first tutorial sessions of my undergraduate history degree, I clearly remember a classmate nonchalantly reeling off George Santayana's famous quotation about the value of history: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The tutor was unimpressed. "You're lucky you didn't say that in your interview," he said. His point, reprised by many of my teachers throughout the next three years, was that history is not a crystal ball. If we gaze into the past we do not see the future; only the past.
At the time, these historians' strident insistence on the practical uselessness of their subject was a little deflating. Why were they devoting their lives to such a futile endeavour? They were clearly jaded, I thought, if not outright depressed. Only gradually did I realise that this warning against drawing lessons from history was a valuable lesson in itself. If history teaches us anything at all, it is how little we can control or even predict our own fate.
The final transitional immigration controls on Romania and Bulgaria are set to expire in January 2014, seven years after these new Eastern Europeans became citizens of the European Union. In the United Kingdom, parallels are already being drawn with the 2004 “wave” of immigration, when Poland and the other A8 countries gained the rights to travel and work throughout the EU. However, the main “pull” factors of immigration, which include employment opportunities, relative gross national interest per capita (GNI per capita) and comparative opportunities across the EU, all suggest that the immigration flow from Romania and Bulgaria will not only be significantly smaller than 2004 levels, but will also be more diffuse throughout EU member states.
A recently released study by Oxford University's Migration Observatory has drawn out the long-term impact of A8 immigration on the UK, placing the “tsunami” effect into a broader context. Estimations made in 2004 predicted 15,000 people per year would move from the new EU member states to the UK. The average annual Long-Term International Migration inflow of EU citizens was, in fact, increased to around 170,000 in the period 2004-2010, in comparison to the 67,000 over the previous six years. As a percentage of EU citizens, the A8 immigrants accounted for around 50 per cent of that movement, meaning that Eastern Europeans made up only one-third of the total migrant inflow into the UK. Nevertheless, the failure to anticipate the impact of lifting these restrictions left a deep mark in the political landscape of the UK.
The negative framing of Eastern European immigration has returned in the form of an endless stream of unskilled and unemployed “benefit tourists”. It may be narrow politicking but the image has maintained its potency. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) now displays a countdown clock on their website for when, as The Telegraph has also warned, “Twenty million Bulgarians and Romanians will gain the right to live and work unrestricted in Britain.” Research by the Open Society in Sofia actually suggests that the inflow of Bulgarian immigrants would be “far less significant in volume and it is less likely.... [to] cause labour market disruption” than the A8 access.
A few days ago I finally finished reading The Native Realm. A great book by Czesław Miłosz that is highly-recommended for anyone who claims to be European. "The native Europe" (which seems to be a more accurate translation) is a fascinating memoir and an intellectual walk along the meandering European paths of the 20th century. But this is not going to be a glorifying review of a brilliant book - although I do encourage you to read it. I'm referring to Miłosz for a rather less optimistic reason.
Last week European public opinion was once again bewildered by Geert Wilders (we all know this flamboyant platinum blond "statesman"). This time his Party for Freedom (PVV) launched a website where Dutch people can file complaints against immigrants from "Middle and Eastern European countries." The complaints are going to be presented to the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment.
Once you've entered the site and recovered your eyesight after being dazzled by Wilders's shining mane, you'll see giant headlines from Dutch newspapers: "Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians – increasingly criminal," "Eastern European gangs in villages" or "Problems with Poles" and a story about some supermarket with misspelled Polish names (of course). The text underneath is even better. "The massive labour migration leads to many problems, nuisances, pollution [sic!], displacements and housing problems (…) Have you ever lost a job to a Pole, Bulgarian, Romanian or other Eastern European? Do you have problems with Eastern Europeans? We'd like to hear."
Turkey’s possible membership in the EU has caused widespread discussions across Europe. Whilst there are good reasons for the EU to say “hayir” (no) to Turkish membership at the moment, saying no on the basis of cultural differences, as seems to be happening now, does not only go against fundamental European principles but will create an unprecedented distance between Turkey and the EU.
Despite the fact that Turkey’s economy is seeing double digit growth, has a higher per capita income than Romania and Bulgaria, and ranks better in risk assessments than Italy and 10 other European states, Turkey’s democracy has still got a long way to go before it could be regarded as consolidated. On the one hand, of course, Turkey still has to deliver on many internal issues. The controversial article 301 that prohibits insulting the Turkish state has caused severe concern for press freedom. As journalists privately admit, they impose self-restraint because of fear over lengthy court cases and possible imprisonment for 5+ years.
Additionally, human rights and rights for minorities still pose challenges. The shaky state of Turkish democracy is further underlined by the troubled opposition that could indulgently be described as divided and lacking a clear plan, as well as the almost-ban of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the constitutional court over violating the secular principle of the Turkish state. If just one more judge had voted to ban the AKP, Turkey would have slipped into a crisis with an unforeseeable future for Turkish democracy.