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From England, Local Perceptions of the Balkans and the Brexit Vote

August 29, 2016

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: while the migration crisis has focused European public discourse on the threat or perceived threat of migrants from Muslim countries, the perception of migrants from non-Muslim countries has been largely overlooked. However, in at least one important referendum on public opinion – the June 23, 2016 Brexit vote – antipathy to ‘Eastern Europe’ made an appearance that came as a surprise to many outsiders. Some interesting opinions on the issue are found in the following brief local assessment from Leicester.

By Antonio Scancariello

Eastern European citizens living in the United Kingdom are facing an uncertain future after June’s referendum, with which Britain decided to leave the EU. The decision, also known as ‘Brexit,’ triggered debates over the rights EU citizens will have to live in the UK and is a source of worries for Romanians and Bulgarians, too.

In an informal survey designed to take the pulse of the locals in Leicester, England, Balkanalysis.com asked British citizens what their views on the issue of immigration are, and where they stand when it comes to EU enlargement policies.

A barman working in one of Leicester’s pubs said: “The whole thing was quite bad, really. There will be no major changes soon, but maybe in two years time there will be more work for them to get their visas. It’s a big loss for the free movement of people, I intended to travel Europe myself.”

Commenting on having immigrants working in the UK, he said: “I don’t have any issues, we have employed Europeans here. I think the Brits who voted ‘Leave’ were the ones too lazy to get a job.”

Another respondent, a PhD student voiced this concern and said, “many people will question if they want to [come in the UK] because after the vote they feel they are not wanted. They may because they have no choice and feel like they cannot survive at home. A solution for them could be to go somewhere closer, like Germany or France.

It will take time to find a solution that can please everyone. I am not opposed to EU enlargement but it needs some reforms and needs stricter criteria,” noted this respondent.”

After the ‘Leave’ victory in the referendum held on June 23, a spate of hate speeches affected British society, which in the most serious cases resulted in the spreading of leaflets asking Polish people to go back to their countries, and act of vandalism to European shops, as the BBC reported in an article titled “Anti-Polish cards in Huntingdon after EU referendum.”

Nevertheless, since then “the hate speech that followed the referendum has died out, it was a campaign of fear,” a sales assistant said. “I can’t see sudden changes, and now it’s up to the new Tory government. As long as our economy is a strong one, we need people who can work, and there are lots of low-paid jobs to be filled.”

When he was asked what ‘Brexit’ could mean for people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, this respondent said, “when it comes to finally leave the EU in two years time it will be hard for people to come here. But I don’t think there will be problems for the ones who are here now.”

Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK

There are 170,000 Romanians and 65,000 Bulgarians living in the UK, according to 2015 data quoted by Balkan Insight in March. Also, the UK is the fifth-largest destination for Romanian exports, accounting for slightly more than 4 percent of overall exports, evaluated at some 2.3 billion euros per year, according to the article. It notes that “social benefits are not the main drive luring Eastern Europeans to the UK, but jobs and higher wages, however.”

This motivation differs from the one frequently stated regarding MENA migrants, who have often been portrayed in European media as specifically seeking social benefits in generous countries like Sweden and Germany.

The future of both EU and non-EU citizens living in Britain is yet to be determined. Theresa May, who became prime minister after David Cameron’s resignation on June 24, put forward a new policy which would require non-EU citizens to match a £35,000 salary threshold to live in the UK, reported the Independent.

However, these are still early days and general proposals are not a substitute for final policies. Britain may have voted for Brexit, but it does not seem to be in a hurry to make the final divorce final. Nevertheless, persons who could be affected – even from EU countries like Bulgaria and Romania – will be watching events carefully in the upcoming period.

 

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