BLACK SEA BLOG: Romanians flooding into UK - myth or reality?

By bne IntelliNews March 4, 2013

Bogdan Preda in Bucharest -

In a guest piece published in The Times on February 25, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta claimed his new government has plans to create enough jobs that will keep Romanians at home and not head off in droves to the UK from the end of this year. In reality, there are facts that contradict both the migration skeptics and those fearing a flood of immigrants in the UK.

Will there be more Romanians - and even more Bulgarians - likely to show up in the UK to "grab the jobs" of the British by accepting lower wages? Yes, there will be. But will they be "flooding" the UK labour market? Probably not.

Worries about a "giant wave" of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants stems from the fact that as of next year the UK will have to open up its labour market to workers from these two countries. Until now, Romanians and Bulgarians, unlike Poles for example, had to go through a lot of official paperwork in order to work legally in the UK. Lots of Romanians or Bulgarians could go to the UK freely after their countries joined the EU in 2007 as tourists and then work illegally; those who wanted to work in the UK badly enough had to go through a lot of bureaucracy. From next year, they will be able to apply for work almost as easily as they do at home.

Beleaguered nations

Romania and Bulgaria, the two formerly communist neighbouring countries, are the poorest in the EU, according to available data. While governments in both countries are under EU pressure to completely liberalize their energy markets, resulting in unbearable rises in utility bills, they simply haven't been able to generate the right policies and amount of economic growth needed to raise incomes fast enough.

Following the toppling of communist regimes across the Soviet bloc at the end of the 1980s, tens of thousands of those countries' citizens immediately migrated to countries in Western Europe. Many more decided to wait for the situation to improve at home, given the new freedoms and the marvels of the new market-oriented economy, which they hoped would generate a decent living.

However, living standards in countries like Romania and Bulgaria have failed to improve considerably, at least for the average worker. Formerly state-owned companies and large construction projects were dismantled with nothing new to consistently replace them. The case was similar for various professions, including engineers, teachers and especially doctors, who after 10 years of school woke up to the reality of being paid no more than €300-400 net per month.

Such a reality prompted more Romanians and Bulgarians to leave their countries to seek better lives. In the case of Romania, which has a population of roughly 21m, about three-times larger than Bulgaria, official statistics cited by PM Ponta indicate that "after our 2007 EU accession, about 3m Romanians gradually left the country to work abroad'', especially to countries with Latin-based languages such as Italy, Spain and France, as Romanian is also Latin-based. Separately, according to statistics supplied by Romania's Chamber of Medics, about 10,000 Romanian doctors left the country over the same period. The situation has been so bad that Romanians with enough money no longer rely on specialised care at home but seek it abroad.

One thing that should be very well understood about economic migration is that at least in Romania's case, the most affected is not the recipient country but rather Romania itself. The massive workforce drain in the past five years has reached a point where five working people support six pensioners, or 1.2 retirees per worker, seriously threatening any state-run pension plan for many years to come. Plus there is now a lack of well-qualified personnel at home.

PM Ponta claims the big wave of migration has already ended, but he fails to explain what might happen on three fronts.

Family matters

Ponta is right when he says that the biggest wave of migration has already taken place. What he fails to take into account, however, is that Romanians living and working in Spain and Italy are now desperately looking for jobs elsewhere, because those economies are among the EU's most troubled. Will they return to Romania or will they move on to the UK if they can find a better paid job there than at home? All of the almost 3m certainly won't move to the UK, but thousands, if not tens of thousands, are surely already considering this option rather than returning to Romania to sweep the streets for €200 a month.

Another aspect overlooked is that each Romanian who chose to move abroad to work still has relatives back home. Among them are relatives who then were reluctant to leave, but are now ready to move if the opportunity arises. Romania has tens of thousands of cases of citizens who have pulled many more family members abroad, and this will continue happening for as long as the EU preserves its principles of free movement of labour and Romania remains as unattractive as it is.

And finally, there is the case of very well-trained professionals who stubbornly hoped that things would change for the better in their country and are now realizing that they have wasted half of their professional lives waiting for changes that either didn't happen or are taking place too slowly. Such people could also head off to the UK. "The economic crisis is transforming the emigration from Romania into a life horizon," the German foundation Friedrich Ebert said in a study released by its Bucharest office in 2012. "Emigration is triggered not only by the low level of income, but also by the lack of trust in the institutional system and decision makers."

Besides their Latin-based language, which helped them cope with integration in Spain, Italy or France, Romanians also have an extra skill when compared to Bulgarians. Even the very average citizen speaks and understands the most common words of the English language, and that's a Ceausescu-era legacy.

The use of English language in Romania dates back to 1968 when, following the invasion of former Czechoslovakia by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops, the then-communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu prevented his country's army from joining the occupation troops and even criticized the move, which prompted Queen Elizabeth II to decorate him and US President Richard Nixon to pay a visit to Romania the following year.

In the same year, as part of an anti-Soviet stance, Ceausescu was hailed as a more liberal communist by western powers as he removed the practice that made it mandatory for Russian to be taught in Romanian schools, but allowed the study of English, German, French, and even Spanish and Italian in elementary schools. Moreover, the state-run television started airing Hollywood movies, crucially with subtitles rather than being dubbed. The subtitling habit, which continues to this day, has helped most of the younger Romanian generation to become more familiar with the English language, to the extent that most youngsters that have graduated from high school can read and write basic English. Bulgaria, on the other hand, has most of its English-language movies dubbed in Bulgarian and the result is visible: much less people there speak or understand English, making it also more difficult for them to settle in the UK.

Bottom line. Yes, more Romanians will move to the UK. But those who do choose to leave Romania for the UK this time will be the ones that still have some good skills and are professionals, such as doctors, engineers and the like, who have wasted enough of their professional lives hoping for better times in their own country. The others likely to move to the UK will be those currently living in other EU economies that are suffering from the Eurozone crisis, such as Italy and Spain.

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