by Dr Katja Richters (SSEES former post doctoral teaching fellow)
Immigration has been one, if not the most prominent topic before and after last week’s EU referendum. Innumerable media reports have painted a picture of leave voters as people who blame immigrants for their problems with housing, access to education and healthcare, unemployment and low wages. While I share these concerns, I strongly believe that neo-liberal policies rather than immigration and EU membership are their causes. As some of the reactions to the referendum result and the worrying outbreak of nationalism and hate speech have shown, voters were not well informed about what kind of immigration the EU facilitates.
Similar confusion also characterises the perceptions of East Europeans held by some of the leave voters that I and my fellow remain campaigners spoke to in Haringey before 23 June. Many of the remarks we heard were spontaneous and unpolished, which is understandable given that we knocked on their doors unexpectedly. Nevertheless, there was a trend towards singling out Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians as the main ‘trouble-makers.’ One woman I spoke to said that she was happy for Germans and French to live and work in the UK, but she did not want Poles and other East Europeans to have the same rights. In her opinion, the latter were lazy, lived off state benefits and prevented Brits from accessing vital NHS treatment. Other Haringey residents felt quite the opposite, i.e. that Poles were making it harder for them to find jobs as they were prepared to work more for less. There was also the perception that Romanians and Bulgarians were causing unspecified problems, spoke little or no English and formed criminal gangs.
Somewhat surprisingly, more than half of the voters who expressed these opinions were either first or second generation immigrants. Haringey is one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the UK with sizeable Turkish and Kurdish communities as well as many migrants from Commonwealth states. There are also a number of East European shops and bars dotted around the borough. Voters from a BAME background added a different perspective to the perception of East Europeans as a number of them felt that they harboured racist prejudices. They told us that they were intending to vote leave because they felt that the progress that has been made in combating racism since the 1970s was threatened by the influx of migrants from less tolerant and diverse societies. Some also criticised that the EU facilitates movement only between its member states, but makes it much harder for Commonwealth citizens to live and work in the UK. They consequently questioned why people who do not have a historical connection to Britain enjoyed more rights than those whose ancestors had stood by the UK during difficult times, i.e. two world wars.
A typical East European food shop, similar to those on Harringay Green Lanes
It would be presumptuous to claim that this relatively small sample of Haringey residents was representative of voters’ perceptions across the country. As a West German who has spent considerable time and energy studying the history, politics, languages and cultures of Eastern Europe – notably Russia and Ukraine – I do not perceive Eastern Europeans as ‘civilisational others’ and I am saddened and worried by the opinions I have summarised above. I would nevertheless draw the tentative conclusion that East Europeans, however defined, face an image problem in the UK that needs to be addressed. As our political elite is wondering how to reshape Britain’s relationship with the EU, I believe it is worthwhile thinking about how we as academics and researchers interested in Central and Eastern Europe could share our passion for the regions and people we study with a wider audience. If we succeeded – and I think we can – in making the hypothetical Joe Bloggs realise that EU migrants come from countries with fascinating cultures and rich histories it would not only be the migrants who would gain from this.
It would also be the academic community because it would give it a powerful answer to the question ‘Why should we spend taxpayers’ money on your research?’
Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL, SSEES or SSEES Research Blog.