You are about to enter the promised land. Or maybe not.
From domestic politicking over asylum seekers to doubts over the European Union enlargement process, British politicians and media have woken up to the endless possibilities for arguing about who should be on the country's guest lists. And there are some here who really have a problem with people from the other end of Europe.
The debate over asylum seekers continued to heat up this week. Home secretary Jack Straw having led the way in waging war on illegal imigrants thus far, albeit with able competition from his shadow in the opposition Conservative Party, Ann Widdecombe, it was now time for the leader of the opposition to catch up. In a keynote speech, William Hague committed his party to a hardline policy aimed at deterring migrants from arriving in Britain in the first place.
At the centre of Hague's new policy is the establishment of secure reception centres where all asylum applicants would be detained, while their cases are speedily considered. Heavily leaked in advance to sympathetic newspapers, this speech provoked much comment and controversy throughout the media. The asylum issue has been covered before in this column, and no doubt we shall return to it again. But Hague's speech, and reactions to it, had a particular relevance to Central and East European countries (CEE), which I shall dwell on.
Hague proposed that a future Conservative government would draw up a list of "safe countries," including those that have been accepted as candidates for European Union (EU) membership. Asylum applications by people from these "safe countries" would generally be rejected. "How can we say, on the one hand, that we accept that a country has the rule of law and good government that would qualify it to join the EU," asked Hague, "and, on the other, that we believe its citizens to be suffering systematic persecution? We shall write into the law a presumption that a claim is unfounded if the applicant has either travelled directly from or begun his journey in a safe country."
As Philip Webster noted in The Times, the proposal "would immediately hit applicants from countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, from where applications are running at up to 175 a month." Hague's measures claimed inspiration from the German system set up in 1993, which also designates safe countries.
It is worth noting that almost all political commentators judge that Hague has no chance of winning the next general election, which must be called by May 2002. Many contend that he is pushing the party to the right to further his campaign for next month's local elections, when he has a good chance of making headway, and to restore some respectability to the general election result. However, he is contributing to the current political climate (stirred up by the Conservative-aligned press), in which politicians of both major parties compete over how tough they can be on asylum and immigration. In fact, the Labour government has already brought in a wide range of controversial measures, including the setting-up of the new Oakington reception centre for processing claims.
In this fevered current asylum debate, Central Europeans, or Eastern Europeans to give them their tabloid name, do seem to have a higher profile than is their due. Take the following analysis from Edward Heathcote-Amory in the Daily Mail ("How Europe got tough and made Britain the target for refugees," 19 April):
All those asylum seekers who make their way across continental Europe, before surrendering to immigration authorities at Dover, have come because we are the softest touch in Europe. Britain, as every Romanian gypsy knows, is a land of subsidised milk, handout honey and an entire industry of Left-wing lawyers dedicated to fighting their cases through our generous courts.
Not all asylum seekers come from CEE countries. In fact, the published statistics suggest they are mostly well down the list. UNHCR figures for the whole of Europe in 1999 show that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (in an exceptional year, because of the Kosovo war) topped the list of asylum applicants' most common countries of origin, at 20.1 per cent. Russia came fourth, with 5.8 per cent, Turkey sixth; Romania and Poland were in ninth and tenth places respectively, both under three per cent, well behind Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. Figures for the UK would differ but not drastically.
Why, then, do UK commentators so often show an obsession with an invasion from the East? One wonders whether it is partly to do with historical memories and cultural stereotypes, the kind that Bram Stoker tapped. It is relatively easy to whip up feeling against an invasion of fresh vampires from Transylvania, who this time have come disguised in headscarves to bleed dry our system of "generous benefits" (Daily Mail, 15 April) and to exploit and violate "our proud tradition of offering sanctuary to those who are fleeing injustice and wrong" (Hague).
It is noteworthy that when the Mail ran one story this week that was more sympathetic to Romanians, it concerned the happy legacy of Mail readers' help for "Ceausescu's children," the pathetic Romanian orphans uncovered to the horror of the world after the fall of the regime in 1989. "Ten years on, the children you helped to make so happy," announced the headline (Glenda Cooper in the Daily Mail, 18 April), applauding its readership for raising GBP one million in the summer of 1990. Of course, this was a very good thing to do. But maybe publishing this article was the Mail's way of saying: pat yourselves on the back, don't worry about that lot any more, you've done your bit after all.
Look again at Heathcote-Amory's words and you notice something else: would he really have been permitted to publish a statement like this in a national newspaper had the word "gypsy" been replaced by, for example, "Jew"? A large degree of the hostility towards Central Europeans is focused on everyone's favourite target, the Roma, which sadly only reflects the treatment the latter have received in their countries of origin.
Heathcote-Amory would, no doubt, deny that his opinions are racist. Hague was careful to applaud the way each new influx of immigrants to Britain has "widened and advanced our sense of what it means to be British." Equally in denial were the tabloids leading the support for the crackdown. The Sun declared: "Tackling asylum seekers head-on is NOT racist. It is REALIST. And Hague's speech last night, far from causing racial tension, is clearly aimed at avoiding it." ("The Sun says: William Hague is dead right," 19 April 2000). The Daily Mail claimed: "The problem this country currently faces is not one of race. The wish to give such a serious issue the debate it deserves is not racist." ("Comment: This sad week for democracy," 15 April)
Perhaps they are right. Perhaps everyone is high-minded. Perhaps no one is seeking to "play the race card." But, at the very least, there is some muddled thinking on the question. The Mail's sister paper, The Mail on Sunday (Editorial, 9 April 2000), defended itself against accusations of racism as follows: "In recent weeks liberal commentators have tried to turn the issue into one of race - a difficult charge to substantiate given that the current crisis is overwhelmingly to do with would-be migrants from Eastern Europe, who are almost without exception white Caucasians." As Francis Wheen pointed out in The Guardian ("It's those liberal commentators again," 12 April), "The migrants who have taken the most vicious kicking from the tabloids recently are Gypsies. According to the Mail on Sunday's logic, they cannot be victims of racial prejudice because they aren't black. Most of the Jews murdered by Hitler were white; if "race" was not the reason for Nazi genocide, what was?"
Of course racism is always something that other people are guilty of. The Belgian governemnt is facing a similar asylum situation, which has responded by deciding to deport up to 1500 Slovak Roma within ten days. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Daily Telegraph pointed out that this opens the government up to charges of hypocrisy:
Louis Michel, the Belgian foreign minister, has been a vehement critic of the Austrian government, calling for a boycott of Austria's ski resorts to protest the presence of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in the coalition. Yet there is no longer any appreciable difference between the treatment of foreigners in Belgium and Austria.
The argument proposed by William Hague for establishing a list of "safe countries" is not without logic. If EU countries judge them fit to join our "civilised club," how can we also judge them unsafe to live in? Three items in the media this week highlighted the problems that drive some Romany people to flee the Czech Republic for Britain.
BBC Radio Five's "Five Live Report" on 16 April investigated skinheads in the Czech Republic, "Home to Europe's fastest-growing and most violent far right movement." Reporter James Proctor revealed that the extreme right in Britain provide inspiration and support for their Czech counterparts, whose prime target are Romany people. There have been over 2000 skinhead attacks on Roma in the Czech Republic in the past two years, including 30 murders.
Ann Treneman in The Times spent a day with asylum applicants at their immigration appeal hearings in London, listening in on the case of a young Czech Roma family whose tale is of violent persecution by "white Czechs and skinheads," featuring sticks, stones, dead cats, wrecked laundry, petrol bombs and horrific injuries. Treneman summarises what the adjudicator must weigh up: "It is a horror story. But the question before us on this day is: is it horrible enough?"
Kate Connolly in The Guardian picked up on the case of the 18 Roma children from Ostrava, whose parents have taken the Czech state to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, accusing it of practising racial discrimination and segregation in the education system. The children were placed in special schools for children with learning disabilities, after failing the state's mental competence tests which the families' lawyer, James Goldston, from the European Roma Rights Centre, claims are biased against Roma. Nationwide, 75 per cent of all Romany children attend special schools; in Ostrava they outnumber non-Roma children in the special schools by 27 to one.
Connolly reports Goldston as claiming "that the case would open the floodgates for similar lawsuits from Gypsies in the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries who were 'similarly plagued' by the problems of their children being sent to schools for the mentally handicapped. The case could also add legal clout to the asylum applications of Gypsies going to Britain claiming racial discrimination."
The irony is that the thinking behind Hague's "safe list" is that Czech Roma should not be granted asylum in Britain, because their country is joining the EU soon and, therefore, their claim to be under persecution must be false. But what will happen when the Czech Republic joins the EU? If current laws on freedom of movement remain, they will be able to travel freely to Britain.
However, the more politicians and the media whip up scare stories of Britain being overwhelmed by a tide of asylum-seekers from Central Europe, the more likely it is that those stories will be used to justify further delaying or even cancelling EU entry for countries like the Czech Republic.
The closed door
If the words of Straw and Hague, the Sun and the Mail leave you uncomfortable, we can at least be grateful that they have inspired some clearer thinking from others on the question of immigration and asylum. A leader in The Times showed a refreshing approach to the whole question of economically-motivated immigration: "What Messrs Hague and Straw both need to address, and do not, is the cause of the sharp increases in asylum-seeking. Partly, it is political turmoil. But a deeper reason is that all other routes into Britain are closed. That closed-door policy has manifestly failed; what is more, this is just as well. For as Britain's population ages, it will need more, not fewer, immigrants."
A further useful contribution came from Boris Johnson, the high-profile editor of right-wing magazine The Spectator and, as such, something of an unlikely source of support for asylum-seekers. And indeed, writing in the Telegraph, he shows little instinctive sympathy, unless they are "our kith and kin" from Rhodesia - sorry, Zimbabwe (the other big asylum story in the British press this week): "Gipsies, Romanians, Kosovar Albanians, all protesting alike that it would be instant death to be sent back to their home country; and in their case, of course, the claims are almost always nonsense. It is outrageous that Zimbabwean farmers, on whose head Mugabe himself has called violence, should be undergoing the same kind of scrutiny as Kosovar Albanians." He even finds himself imagining the opinions of a putative Tory MP who believes that "Eastern Europeans want nothing so much - or so this Tory might imply - as to come to this country and leech off our benefits system and waylay us at traffic lights and wash our windscreens with their swaddled-up babies. And maybe there is a grit of truth in that reactionary suggestion."
But Boris Johnson knows the benefits of immigration to a society and sees beyond the leech stereotypes: "In both groups - white Zimbabweans and headscarved East Europeans - you will find people who genuinely want to work; who have come to this country because they believe they can make a go of things. Instead of welcoming them as economic migrants, the phrase is a term of abuse." Like a good free-marketeer, Johnson's real target is the welfare system. But he hits on one of the biggest issues facing Europe: "Instead of seeing that we need immigrants - to bring down the dependency ratio, for instance - Western European governments have created a stockade, a racist stockade, around the EU, that no one except an 'asylum seeker' is allowed to penetrate." Other immigration doors are closed, hence the increasing numbers using the asylum system to try to get in.
Inside the stockade - and outside
Just as with applicants for asylum in Britain, so with applicants for EU membership: the management reserves the right to refuse admission. It seems to be the theme of the moment.
Inside the stockade of the EU, enthusiasm for eastward enlargement is indeed cooling a little. "Britain and Germany," notes Roger Boyes in The Times, "the two staunchest champions of Central European entry, now seem to be otherwise engaged." In Germany, where the opposition Christian Democrats' popular new leader Angela Merkel warned this week that "eastward enlargement means more immigration," Boyes calls for Chancellor Schröder to pick up Helmut Kohl's mantle and persuade his EU partners of the economic benefit as well as the "moral imperative" of enlargement. "There is an entrepreneurial dynamism to the East which has evaporated in Germany," he claims.
Increasing numbers of politicians and commentators all over Europe, both inside and outside the Union, are seeing enlargement as a possible issue for defining their political outlook. Boyes points out that Schröder "can present eastward enlargement as an opportunity for the West. Or he can paint the easterners as a threat - snatching German jobs, wrecking the incomes of German farmers, undercutting German small businesses."
Similar arguments are reworked on the other side: Tony Paterson in The Guardian reported how CEE applicant countries are facing continuing economic adjustment, in order to compete in today's Europe, and for many EU entry will only lead to hardship in the short term. There is a rich vein of resentment to mine here: "Poland's politicians may be embracing early membership of the European Union, but its farmers are furious about the move, which could wipe out their livelihoods."
The leader of the Polish agricultural workers' union, Samoobrona, which organised nationwide protests last year against cheap EU imports of produce, is one of the candidates for this year's Presidential elections. Andrzej Lepper will line up alongside around a dozen candidates, though it seems the result is a foregone conclusion, as The Economist put it this week (22 April): "There is probably only one Pole capable of denying Aleksander Kwaśniewski five more years as president of Poland, and he lives in the Vatican."
The problems of assimilating Polish agriculture into the EU worry current members as well as the Poles themselves, says David Walker in The Guardian: "Two years ago 80 per cent of Poles said they wanted to join; that is now 48 per cent. That is more than across the Oder-Neisse. Fewer than 30 per cent of Germans want Poland in." He adds: "Who is going to pay Polish farmers not to produce (which is how the common agricultural policy works)? For how long will the taxpayers of the 15 EU member states remain sunk in their indifference? Here in the UK, you can count on the fingers of one hand the speeches made by Foreign Office ministers alerting the public to what lies ahead."
The official line in Britain, on the rare occasions when it is uttered, is still positive towards enlargement. But, as it becomes an increasingly politicised issue, we are going to see more posturing on who can come in and who cannot. Back in March, Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski warned of a growing "virus of selfishness" in the EU. David Walker, again: "Sooner or later enlargement had to stop being an elite project, something for committees and negotiators alone. Perhaps we are now entering the phase when it will interest vote-chasing politicians and people on the street with all their doubts and anxieties. Polish Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek asks whether 'fear is to be the main emotion keeping the EU together.' Good question."
A fearful, racist stockade. One where the current members do not want to let anyone else in, and the applicants are themselves losing enthusiasm for joining the thing. Will the EU come to this? Or will it follow the "moral imperative" and embrace the "entrepreneurial dynamism" of CEE countries?
Former boxer arrested
One CEE story this week that the media deemed more positive for West European governments came from Slovakia on 20 April, with the dawn arrest by police commandos of former prime minister Vladimír Mečiar at his home in Trenčianske Teplice. Mečiar was taken to Bratislava and released, after being charged with abuse of power and fraud during his years in office in the 1990s. He was also fined for refusing to answer police questions about the 1995 kidnapping of Michal Kováč Jr - the son of then-President Kováč, Mečiar's arch-rival - which the current government has accused him and his secret service chief, Ivan Lexa, of organising.
All four leading British broadsheets covered the incident and none of them had much that was good to say about Mečiar - unless you count the fact that he is a "former boxer," which each deemed relevant to the story. Perhaps the Daily Telegraph was the strongest in its condemnation of his years in office: "After Czechoslovakia split into two at the start of 1993, Slovakia quickly became the runt of the Central European litter, thanks largely to Mečiar. Mečiar's strongarm tactics sent foreign investment into a nosedive and the country was passed over for fast-track membership of Nato and the European Union."
"Under Mr Mečiar," recorded The Independent, "Slovakia became a near-pariah state, because of his government's human rights record, tolerance of organised crime and support for crony capitalism. Slovakia was riddled with rival mafia networks who fought for control of lucrative rackets that brought in millions of dollars through prostitution, drugs and smuggling people into Western Europe."
Roger Boyes in The Times saw political motives for the arrest: "Since Mr Mečiar was defeated in general elections 18 months ago controversial economic reforms have been introduced and the popularity of the government of Mikuláš Dzurinda has been dropping. There was speculation that Mr Mečiar was plotting a comeback with friends from the former security service. This fear prompted the operation. Police, evidently acting on orders from the Interior Minister, used a small charge to blast open the barricaded door."
The Financial Times ("Former Slovak PM arrested," 21 April), while missing out on the scoop of Mečiar's boxing past, sounded a warning note: "The arrest is likely to inflame an already tense political climate in which Mr Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) - for eight years the country's largest party - is leading a petition campaign for early elections and has called repeated votes of no-confidence in cabinet members. The HZDS called Mr Mečiar's arrest "a terrorist act" and said they would lead demonstrations in Bratislava against the government."
Oliver Craske, 22 April 2000
Philip Webster, "Tories will bar asylum-seekers from 'safe' areas," The Times, 19 April 2000.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, "Belgium to deport 1,500 Slovak gipsies," Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2000 [You will need to register to access The Telegraph's archives. All links to The Telegraph lead to the main page, where you can register and access the archives, ed].
Francis Wheen, "Mr Cook and Dr Strangelove / It's those liberal commentators again," The Guardian, 12 April 2000.
George Jones, "Hague's asylum speech," Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2000.
"Symptoms and causes," leading article, The Times, 19 April 2000.
Boris Johnson, "Comment: This is a demented way to treat our kith and kin," Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2000.
"Be my guest-worker," Leader, The Spectator Online, 21 April 2000.
Ann Treneman, "A very British day with the asylum-seekers," The Times, 14 April 2000.
Kate Connolly, "Czech Gypsies begin test case for pupils classed as retarded," The Guardian, 19 April 2000.
Roger Boyes, "Schroder should tap into energy that eastern nations would bring to EU," The Times, 19 April 2000.
Tony Paterson, "Polish farmers declare war over EU membership," The Guardian, 18 April 2000.
David Walker, "Plough shares," The Guardian, 20 April 2000.
James Drake, "Police hold Slovakian ex-premier after siege," Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2000.
Adam LeBor, "Armed police arrest Slovakia's ex-prime minister," The Independent, 21 April 2000.
Roger Boyes, "Former Slovak leader charged with fraud and abuse of power," The Times, 21 April 2000.