A farcical furore over Romanians in London reminds us why restricting labour migration in a free Europe is wrongheaded
When Romania and Bulgaria became member states of the European Union in January, one question loomed large in many minds: would the flood of "Polish plumbers" into the labour markets of western member states now be supplemented by a surge of Romanian repairmen and Bulgarian bricklayers?
The answer has not been clear, so far. Gradual news is hard to measure and awkward to report. With no obvious surge, the question seemed to fade from public consciousness.
Then one crisp April morning, Daniel, a 23-year-old Romanian, woke up outdoors in central London. He had spent the night in Hyde Park alongside fellow migrant labourers, in an encampment partly concealed by trees, he said. So went the story from BBC's Newsnight, whose report on Romanian migrants "sleeping rough" invited outrage from viewers.
From a British perspective, the image of migrants camping illegally in the park looked like evidence that especially desperate migrants had begun to arrive.
From a Romanian perspective, it looked worrying, like a gag to stoke anti-immigrant paranoia in another western EU country already taking steps to restrain labour migration from the new EU member states. Britain will allow no more than 20,000 unskilled Romanian workers to join its registered workforce this year.
Daniel, Newsnight's interviewee, told Romanian television journalists that he no longer slept in the park and that he had been paid by the BBC for his interview. The Romanian charge d'affaires in London issued a complaint to the BBC, accusing Newsnight of "stage managing" its report and "stereotyping" its coverage of Romanians, The Times reported.
The BBC has held its ground, leaving the minor media furore in stalemate. But whatever the facts of the report, Newsnight did expose a broader truth. With no published statistics describing post-accession labour migration from Romania and Bulgaria, countries like Britain are unsure about the scale of the influx, and they do not like it.
Uncertainty fuels fears of immigration. Even before we can accurately measure the trend, it is subjected to economically illiterate analysis. A simplified, adversarial view of labour migration takes just two sides into account - wealthy hosts and poor beneficiaries.
Sadly, this is the prevailing view. Even with its restrictions, Britain is a model of economic liberalism compared with most other EU countries on the issue of labour migration. Europe's protectionists need to learn a few lessons.
Firstly, income gaps are not all bad. The average Briton earns ten times more money than the average Romanian. But income disparity does not in itself generate economic negatives. On the contrary, it can provide opportunities. Cynical as it may sound, there is always a market for poor people, and where there is demand for low-wage workers, there will be supply.
Secondly, material factors are not the only factors at work. An important one, almost entirely overlooked, is culture. For example, those who have warned that hundreds of thousands of Romanians will cross the English Channel overlook the fact that Britain is hardly a natural destination for Romanians.
Romania is a Latin country like Italy and Spain, one big reason why more than 1.5 million Romanians work there - providing, incidentally, much-needed support for Spain's economic growth spurt.