Xenophobia – the fear of foreigners – has always been a serious problem for humanity. In the EU today, however, it is outweighed by xeno-xenophobia – the fear of the fear of foreigners. European elites, eager to promote ever-greater union and reap more of the benefits of globalization, decry their citizens’ ambivalence on immigration. Unlike Hillary Clinton, they don’t openly describe a quarter of their populations as despicable, irredeemable haters. Yet, European elites are even more fearful of public hate boiling up and exploding. They see the ghosts of 20th century fascism and world wars.
Unfortunately, the public has cause for ambivalence. On the one hand, it revels in an unprecedented combination of peace, advanced technology, economic prosperity, and cradle-to-grave protections. On the other hand, that combination is unravelling as NATO’s umbrella frays, radical Islamism rises, growth sputters, Asia outcompetes, domestic inequalities surge, and public debts balloon. The middle classes feel squeezed, and they’re right. Yet even a tattered Eurotopia beckons as oasis to over a billion poorer, less educated people in the Middle East, Pakistan and Africa. Open borders would threaten to drain the oasis dry.
Even if external borders were sealed shut, however, free internal migration would pose a problem. On first hearing that sounds preposterous, since EU legislation enshrines the free internal movement of goods, capital, services and people. However, free movement within the EU is more the right to visit and move through than the right to move in. To change citizenship from one EU state to another normally takes 5-10 years as a registered permanent resident. It’s not like the U.S., where Americans move thousands of kilometers from one U.S. state to another with less care than Bulgarians move from Varna to Sofia; they become permanent residents immediately with the same legal rights and similar eligibility for benefits. U.S. states don’t have cross-state language barriers, cultural differences, or employer preferences for natives that approach those of the EU.
Yet the economic temptation to move is much higher across EU states than it is across US states. Median household incomes vary across US states by at most 1.9 to 1; adjusted for cost of living the range is less than 1.5 to 1. The ranges of per capita incomes by US state are similar. In contrast, Eurostat reports that median net incomes differ across the EU by 12 to 1 in nominal terms and 5 to 1 adjusted for cost of living. Bulgaria has the next lowest median net income after Romania; median net incomes in northwest Europe are roughly 7 times Bulgaria’s in nominal terms and 3 times Bulgaria’s adjusted for cost of living.
From a Bulgarian or Romanian perspective, the northwestern EU ought to help trim the gap by investing more in the southeast, by buying more of its goods and services, by employing and training more of its workers, and by transferring massive funds for social welfare. However, investment and production are developing more slowly than hoped, on some combination of domestic obstacles and competition from outside Europe, while the EU doesn’t have enough independent fiscal authority or support from northwestern governments to transfer massive funds directly. The largest transfers occur indirectly through the banking system, but they’ve gone to the PIGS rather than Romania or Bulgaria.
In response, more Romanians and Bulgarians head northwest to work. While that’s been a good bargain overall for employers, migrants, and their respective communities, northwestern workers worry about downward pressure on wages and drains on social benefits. Tensions grew especially in the UK, which opened its job market more fully to EU migrants than any other EU member. UK Prime Minister Cameron vowed to address domestic concerns by phasing in social benefits for Eastern European workers – basically putting them on a transitional path between what their home countries would provide for dole and pensions and what the UK provides. However, the EU wouldn’t let him, and that more than any other single EU decision is what turned the tide toward Brexit.
For Brexiters to resent that isn’t racism, since eastern Europeans are the whitest of the UK’s immigrants. It’s not xenophobia either, since the Cameron proposal would have protected the UK’s relative openness to migrant job-seekers. Is it discriminatory? Obviously. But lots of policies, like private property and citizenship, are obviously discriminatory without being viewed as hate crimes. Is Bulgaria racist and xenophobic for not opening its job market to Syrian refugees and extending full social benefits to any new hire?
Let me be clear. I welcome globalization. For all its tumult, it’s boosting living standards and practical freedoms more than any other transition in history. I deplore closed borders. I’d like to see more mixing of peoples and less inequality. Yet I also respect people’s desires to defend their standards of livings and communities, to find shelter from the global storms. When those principles conflict, as they often do, societies are generally better off working out compromises than having each side vie to crush the other.
The UK best serves Bulgaria if it stays in the EU as counterweight to France and Germany and keeps its labor market open. For Bulgaria as a whole, second-class benefits for Bulgarians in the UK is more insult than injury. Indeed, Bulgaria can benefit from workers trained abroad bringing their know-how home.
So why not extend an olive branch to the UK? Have the Bulgarian government openly declare that it wants the UK to stay in the EU and that its people prize work opportunities in a broad common market. To that end it is prepared to offer a compromise:
- ■ Let each EU country decide its immigration policy towards non-EU nationals.
- ■ Preserve and expand EU citizens’ opportunities to work anywhere in the EU and change their naturalized “home” country after 5-10 years of permanent residence.
- ■ Accept a transitional benefit scheme, where migrants receive fewer non-work benefits than native-born and naturalized workers do.
Will this fly? I don’t know. But it suits Bulgaria’s economic interests, it’s dignified, and it will win Bulgaria international respect.
By Kent Osband