Why Britain is not No 1

By Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, a pre-accession adviser to the Romanian Economic and Social Council between December 2004 and August 2006 (THE GUARDIAN, 26/09/06):

The tabloids’ panicked headlines about the wave of Romanians and Bulgarians that would deluge Britain after their countries’ accession to the EU at the start of next year began to look more than a little exaggerated yesterday. Britain will not be “swamped” after all, new research suggests.A poll carried out for Bulgaria’s labour ministry by BBSS Gallup International shows that only 46,000 people there seriously intend to work abroad, with Spain, Germany, Italy and Greece ahead of the UK as their preferred destination. The situation is similar in Romania, where I have first-hand experience. I recently returned to Britain after a year and a half working in Bucharest, and I came away with little doubt that the supposed flood of immigration was more likely to be a trickle.

The Romanian government expects around 350,000 people to look for work elsewhere in the EU, but, contrary to popular belief, Britain is not the UK to be only about 50,000 – the same figure as the estimate made by the Institute for Public Policy Research this summer.

Why is Britain not as popular? Many Romanians, much like the British, think first of Spain, Italy, France or Germany as somewhere to work, live or study abroad. In the cases of Italy, Spain and Germany, agreements have already been made with Romania to grant pensions and benefits for Romanians working there – although so far only Finland has said it will have an open-door policy.

More than a million Romanians already live and work in Italy, according to government statistics. Spain, too, is popular for Romanian workers. I used to walk past the Spanish embassy on my way to work and often saw huge queues of people waiting to apply for work visas. The Mediterranean coastal town of Castellon is an entrepreneurial hotbed for Romanian migrants, who make up a massive chunk of its population. France and Germany have close historical relations with Romania; Bucharest was once called the Paris of the east, and Romania’s first king, Carol I, was German. Business investment from France and Germany, meanwhile, has flowed into Romania since the collapse of communism. British business only caught up after Vodafone bought the leading mobile phone network last year.

Romanians are not Slavic people but Latin, so the Italian, Spanish and French languages have much more in common with Romanian than English does. But it is as much a cultural distinction as it is linguistic. Romanians place a much stronger emphasis on their family than their work – very much a Latin attitude. So they believe that they are less likely to fit in and be warmly received in Britain. Many western European countries are already home to established communities of Romanians; the Romanian community in Britain is less visible. True, the Germans are not Latin, but Germany offers a cheaper option – many Romanians have told me Britain is just too expensive.

It is not just fruit pickers who will consider seeking employment outside Romania. But some of the highly skilled Romanians I have spoken to did not enjoy the experience of working in Britain. One woman told me that when she lived in England, working at a development agency on an international project with a view to making her position permanent, it was the most miserable month of her life; it made her appreciate what she had left behind in Romania.

EU accession offers new opportunities to live and work in another part of Europe for many Romanian citizens. But we must remember it is a challenge for any person to come to work in a new country, to speak in a new language, to adapt to a new culture and to find new friends. For Romanians, that challenge is greater in Britain than many imagine.