New Year’s Eve is always loud in our part of London, but it quieted down after all the drunks eventually staggered off home — and to our astonishment, it stayed quiet all the next day. We waited and waited for the predicted hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian “benefit tourists” to throng our streets, stealing and begging and applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance — as the dole is now known. But they never showed up.
It’s enough to make you doubt the trustworthiness of the popular press. For months right-wing British politicians and their allies in the tabloid papers have been warning that on January 1, when citizens of the Balkan countries that joined the European Union seven years ago finally got the right of free movement throughout the EU, Britain would be inundated by poor Romanians and Bulgarians.
The Conservative Party, which dominates Britain’s coalition government, rose to the occasion. Henceforward, the government announced, immigrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment, and they will have to wait three months before applying for unemployment benefit.
Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested last month that the principle of free movement of EU citizens among the member countries should be changed to curb “mass populations movements” when new members join. It’s too late to impose that rule on Bulgarians and Romanians, who are already EU citizens, he said, but while they are free to come to Britain and look for a job, “There is not freedom to come and claim.”
This is the “benefit tourism” notion: that poor eastern Europeans will move to the United Kingdom not to get a job, but to live off the state, claiming unemployment pay, social housing and other benefits that should be reserved for honest British workers. Even Cameron has had to admit that there is no “quantitative evidence” that this phenomenon actually exists. Nevertheless, he talks about it constantly as if it did.
But the whole thing is a charade, and Cameron’s “new” restrictions on immigrants don’t actually change anything. In practice, new immigrants to Britain already had to wait three months before gaining access to unemployment benefits, and it is not legally possible for Britain to charge EU citizens for medical care. The Conservative Party in Britain has just been churning out fake solutions to phantom problems.
The anti-immigrant voters Cameron is pandering to will not change their minds when the predicted tidal wave of Balkan immigrants does not happen, nor will he change his story. He will simply claim that it was his emergency measures that stopped it. But this tempest in a teapot highlights the sheer power of the principle of free movement within the European Union. It is what makes EU citizenship the gold standard in terms of passports.
Like the United States and the Canadian province of Quebec, several EU countries offer fast-track residence permits to foreigners who will invest a large sum in the local economy: from $400,000 in Greece to $15 million in the United Kingdom. But they still actually have to live in the country in question for up to five years before getting their citizenship and passport, and the average jet-setter wants more for his money.
Last November Malta, the smallest EU member, announced a program that skips the residence requirement and simply sells Maltese passports to “high-value” individuals who are willing to pay the government 650,000 euros ($885,000). It’s a quite reasonable price for a passport that confers the right to live and work almost anywhere in Europe and also offers a visa waiver for travel to the United States.
Who buys these passports? Mostly rich Chinese: 248 out of 318 residence permits issued by Lisbon in the past three months to people who invested 500,000 euros ($680,000) in Portuguese property went to Chinese nationals. And there is no shortage of potential customers: a Bank of China survey revealed that almost half of the Chinese citizens with assets worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) are considering moving abroad.
Any EU passport — Portuguese, Latvian, Irish, whatever — gives its holder the right to live anywhere, work anywhere, set up a business anywhere in a community of 28 countries with a total population of more than 500 million people. It is the principle of free movement that makes it so valuable, and no amount of protest by “Little Englanders” on the right of British politics is going to change that.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.