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Monday, January 6, 2014

New Rules for Workers From Europe’s East Prompt Xenophobia in the West

The European Union’s easing of work restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians on New Year’s Day has revived a continent-wide debate on immigration, spurring both irrational alarmism and a caustic backlash against the perceived anti-immigration mania.

Nine European Union member states, including Britain, France and Germany, placed temporary labor limits on the citizens of Romania and Bulgaria â€" among the most impoverished countries in the 28-member organization â€" when they joined the organization in 2007.

Though the restrictions were lifted on Jan. 1, Romanians and Bulgarians are still not part of the passport-free Schengen area and will continue to face border controls when traveling in many European Union countries. Some, like Britain, are also tightening some rules so that migrants can’t claim out-of-work benefits for three months after arriving.

An already rancorous debate on immigration in Britain was further stirred up on Sunday when Prime Minister David Cameron said he was considering pushing for a limit on workers from Europe and making the reduction of migrants a key priority in his planned overhaul of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Mr. Cameron also defended government plans to begin charging migrants for medical treatment in accident and emergency departments.

Mr. Cameron’s seemingly more strident take comes against a backdrop of rising anti-immigrant sentiment by the country’s influential tabloid newspapers along with an increasingly trenchant anti-immigrant discourse by the far right.

Ahead of the policy changes, some British tabloids have predicted an invasion of downtrodden citizens from the east, intent on begging, stealing jobs and collecting welfare checks. Under the headline “Cheeky Beggars,” the tabloid The Sun on December 31 featured a front-page story on the first busload of Britain-bound Romanians, including a purported convicted thief and others who the newspaper said had boasted of their plans to steal scrap metal and rake in generous benefits.

Others, however, have loudly praised the opening of immigration as a catalyst for economic growth. In Romania, Britain and elsewhere, the anti-immigrant backlash has spurred a backlash against the backlash. The Romanian government has insisted that Britain is not even Romanians’ first choice of destinations.

Last year, the Romanian newspaper Gandul launched a campaign to counter fear-mongering about immigration, urging Britons to come to Romania and seek job opportunities. “We May Not Like Britain, But You Will Love Romania,” the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, a small army of Britons mocked the spiraling fears on Twitter. Giles Goodall, a Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament, posted an image of a deserted border post with a sarcastic caption about the anticipated invasion from the east that had yet to materialize.

Al Murray, a writer, expressed his disappointment at coming down for breakfast on New Year’s day and not finding any Romanians or Bulgarians.

Darren, a self-described introverted barista from Glasgow, claimed that “The average British person will swallow up to 8 Bulgarians in their sleep in the first week of 2014 alone.” David Turner, another writer, wrote a mock letter to the Daily Mail, a tabloid, asking the paper what to do after waking up and finding his children speaking Bulgarian.

In France, the relaxation of the rules has spurred fears of a Roma influx from Romania and Bulgaria, stoked by members of the far-right National Front who have blamed Roma, or Gypsies, for brazenly stealing and disturbing the peace. This summer, the political group’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, called the Roma community in Nice “smelly” and “rash-inducing.”

In Germany, the conservative Christian Social Union â€" one of three governing parties â€" has warned that migrants who seek to unfairly bilk the welfare system should be expelled from the country.

So far, immigration experts in Britain say the stampede of migrants predicted by some has not materialized.

Victor Spirescu, a 30-year-old construction worker, was one of a small handful of Romanians on board a Wizz Air flight from Targu Mures on Jan. 1 who suddenly found himself barraged by British journalists desperate for a comment. The flight was three quarters full, with a majority of the 146 passengers returning to jobs in Britain following Christmas vacation.

A bemused Mr. Spirescu told the reporters he had learned English from watching MTV and had already secured a job washing cars. He said he loved to work. Asked about workers applying for benefits, he said he had never even heard of Britain’s National Health Service.

“I don’t come to rob your country,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC. “I come to work and then go home.”

Palko Karasz contributed reporting.