Less than a year after the biggest wave of EU enlargement, the better off (Western) half of the European Union was more or less terrified by the prospect of an invasion of low skilled workers from the new Member States.
On a peaceful, stable and prosperous continent – too bad that these ‘certitudes’ would be put in doubt sooner than most people could have imagined in May 2004 or January 2007 – this kind of scaremongering was a lucrative strategy for many newspapers.
East Europeans were allegedly rushing to the former paradise that had been protected by the Iron Curtain, in order to feast on its delights, but bring nothing in exchange. So it was told by some, so it was believed by many.
For anyone coming from the poorer (Eastern) half of the EU, those assumptions were preposterous from the beginning.
With some exceptions (tens of thosands at most) most of the intra-EU migrants (about two million only from Romania) would not be savage migratory hordes, but law-abiging taxpayers in their adoptive countries.
By no means were these ‘second class Europeans’ inherently prone to pulverise the social structures of the Welfare States which had already been weakened by numerous homegrown causes.
The archetipal threat was – as it was portrayed initially and mainly in France, but not exclusively there – the Polish plumber.
This character was meant to represent a cheap worker, with unverifiable skills, who was free to access the labour market, thus to ‘steal’ the jobs of the locals.
A large number of foreign workers would drive wages down, make trade unionism falter, and cause massive unemployment.
A EU commissioner from the Netherlands dared to claim that, contrary to popular belief in the ‘threat’ posed by such workers from the new Member States, he would entrust a Polish handyman with taking care of his second home in France.
When I was in the UK, I asked someone (an economic researcher) whether a similar fear of foreign plumbers existed in Britain, beyond the hysteria of the tabloids.
His answer is another ‘witty bit’ which explains the success of Polish (+ Romanian, Estonian, Hungarian etc) plumbers (+ other workers) have been having in many EU countries over the past years:
“The British plumber is not as good as the Polish plumber, and the latter may even smile to you. Skills of the lower part of the population are not as good as in Eastern Europe.”
[For all the episodes of this series, and all the posts on this blog go to/Pentru toate episoadele din această serie şi toate postările de pe acest blog mergi la: Contents/Cuprins]