“No second-class EU-citizens!”

Posted on 24. February 2014

by Miruna Troncota

Miruna TroncotaThe debut of the year, when “good news” for Romania were publically wrapped up as  “bad news” for certain EU countries, was very puzzling for me. During the first week of 2014, there were two important events which took place one after the other and they finally triggered contradictory opinions regarding our European citizenship.

First, it was all over the news that, from January 1, restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians living and working in other EU countries were lifted. This measure has heated the debate especially in those few but important countries were Romanians and Bulgarians had various restrictions to work and have access to social benefits. The debate reached its climax when the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok from Germany, proposed fingerprinting Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants. The next day, a number of people protested in front of the German Embassy in Bucharest. Other politicians from Germany, Romania and at EU level have condemned this proposal as demagogical, populist or even irresponsible. Nevertheless, the entire “fuss” tackled an important issue that concerns EU and its future, as we have this saying in Romania that “there is no smoke without a fire”.

Second, a few days after this debate erupted, there was an event organized in Bucharest by The League of Romanian Students Abroad (LSRS) at the Palace of Parliament. For the fifth time the “LSRS Gala” awards academic excellence and brings into public attention the most active Romanian students who study in prestigious universities all around the globe. Almost 1000 people attended the event – students, diplomats, ambassadors and important cultural and political figures from Romania and abroad. I had lots of friends who were there either as organizers or being awarded for their academic merits. I was happy that for a few days one could find lots of headlines about how proudly these talented people represent Romania abroad. One newspaper even interviewed all the 10 winners of this Ceremony.

These last weeks, I had most of all the impression I do not understand what EU means anymore. On one hand, German or French politicians propose measures in order to restrict our rights of free movement in the EU, which is a core values of EU citizenship. On the other hand, we are proud to see that Romanians who study in the most elitist universities like Harvard, Stanford, London School of Economics or TU München have remarkable results and in many cases they have the intention to come home and implement what they have learnt abroad.

10 years ago when I was in high school, there were all these information campaigns in schools about our country’s future accession to the EU and everybody tried to dismantle euro-skepticism by providing us with concrete information about the benefits of a membership and convincing arguments about the way EU functions. Back then, I was all the time stressing the “cool” parts of being a EU citizen in my view – travelling, studying, exploring diversity, gaining a wider view on your local problems and, most of all, finding solutions together.

I still believe the same. But I feel disappointed when I hear anti-immigration debates in several founding member states of the EU. I feel that the message these countries is giving us is like – “Oops, sorry guys, several years ago we were telling you about the benefits for you to join, and to be respectable European citizens. But now we have changed our minds. It seems like we overestimated you and you overestimated us”.

Lately, I had lots of discussions with my friends who were living abroad or planning to do so in the future. We all felt discouraged to plan a European future career, when we are labeled as “second-class citizens” or as a menace. Some are offended by Mr Brok’s proposed measure of fingerprinting. A friend told me: “This is horrible. If they want to restrict the right for free movementper se, for economic reasons, than they should propose taking the fingerprints of all members of the European Union in Germany, not the fingerprinting of only Romanians and Bulgarians.” In recent years there were similar debates in Great Britain and France, with press campaigns directed against our countries. I saw a lot of young, educated and very “moderate” people around me develop a sort of “anti-Western” attitude. They all feel as a sort of responsibility to stay in Romania and prove they can make wonderful things here as they do not feel “welcomed” there.

If our own nationality becomes a “guilt” in itself, despite our behavior as European citizens (which means assuming both rights and responsibilities), and if all of us are summed up as “outlaws” and  illegal “Robin Hoods” of German welfare system, then I do not want to be part of such a society. To be honest: I feel very insecure in this European surrounding.

If one reads the expressions of politicians like Elmar Brok, it looks like all Romanians ever dream about in life is to go to Western countries, to take benefits in their child allowances, pensions and tax deductions and live happily ever after. I find the idea of this “Romanian dream” in the EU completely offensive. On the contrary, Romania brought and continues to bring a lot of valuable input to the EU, with its highly skilled professionals, hard working people and creative initiatives.

Don’t get me wrong: These “social benefits hunters” exist and they must be dealt with in a professional and urgent manner. We must find specific solutions for these people and the challenges they bring for the economy. I do not think that fingerprinting or any other discriminatory measure would help other purposes but dividing people and rise social violence. And I still think like in high-school – that EU is “cool” because it helps us find solutions together, not one against the other as it happened in our century long history of European wars.

Anger and disappointment – this is what most of EU-minded young people around me feel right now. But we are a scarce minority. Most young Romanians have no intention in leaving the country, and they just feel ‘disgusted’ by this type of politics in general and are not interested at all in EU affairs, nor in Romanian public debates. They simply do not care about what others think of us because they are purposely uninformed on these issues and they consider them irrelevant. One friend told me “I have better things to do than to worry about the EU. Who cares, it’s their politics, not mine”. Such an attitude scares me even more, especially that in 2014 we will have a new round of elections for the European Parliament and the high absenteeism rate of young people proves that the number of active and responsible EU citizens is shrinking.

I think that these are chain reactions – the debates about the measures to exclude certain citizens from EU benefits and create “second class citizens” make a lot of young people to opt for excluding themselves from the political arena because they do not feel well represented there. These are very dangerous phenomena which have nothing in common with what EU is all about – “finding solutions together” as I liked to think when I was a pupil.

Describing Romanians and Bulgarians as “social benefit hunters”, is an intentional over-simplification of the situation – and this is the root cause for all these recent exaggerated and inflammatory anti-immigration discourses in the EU.  Oversimplification always hurts because it distorts reality. Simplification is necessary so that we can grasp the most complex aspects of reality, thereby the need for some “national” stereotypes from time to time like being always late, being lazy or having skills for speaking many languages.

But over-simplification is something else. These truncated images of Romanians and Bulgarians are not only un-democratic practices, but they are also very dangerous if they are taken for granted by the majority of EU citizens and are transformed from simple stereotypes in severe stigmatization. These types of practices characterize the anti-immigration press campaigns in certain countries and they motivate this “anger towards the West” which is a now a “revived” phenomena in Eastern Europe.

Populism deals with this kind of over-simplifications because this is the easiest way to remind people of their greatest “community” fears – the fear of foreigners and the fear of losing their identity and their benefits. I would think that democracy in the EU is much more demanding than these populist “shortcuts”. The fact that we know how the populist logic works, does not make us “immune” to its negative effects. In the end lots of people all around Europe buy into these alarmist messages – especially the majority comprised of “passive” EU citizens.

In the end, the possibility to live and work in another EU country should not be perceived as a threat for either taking other’s jobs or burdening their social welfare system. Instead of “fighting against” EU citizens portrayed as “Eastern immigrants” we should also reflect on the symbolic importance of the freedom of movement in Europe, a vital part of European integration. In this perspective, the most recent anti-immigration debates in Germany, France or the UK were not just a form of “shaming” Romanian and Bulgarian citizens but also a form of thinking about social problems at EU level in terms such as “collective guilt” and the need for a “collective punishment” which we thought should have disappeared after the atrocities of the 20th century.

This article is part a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.