EU's Balkan citizens take anti-immigrant vote in their stride
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Britons have a right to worry if Romanians move in next door, or so says the man who triumphed in European Parliament elections. But despite such hostility, Romanians themselves still cherish the European Union as their best chance of escaping poverty.
Some fear a deepening demonization of immigrants from Romania and neighboring Bulgaria following last weekend's victories of right-wing Eurosceptic parties in France, Denmark and Britain, where the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage trounced the established parties.
Yet people from the EU's poorest states have largely taken the results and the anti-immigration rhetoric in their stride, aware that parties closer to the center still hold power.
"I don't think this will have any impact on how we live our lives," said Adriana Berindei, a former teacher in Romania who now works in Britain as a cleaner.
"Maybe they will propose anti-immigration measures ... but even if they do they will not manage to get them approved because they do not have a majority in the European Parliament."
Romanians in particular remain among the EU's staunchest supporters, seeing membership as a path to prosperity. Along with membership of the NATO defense alliance, they also regard it as a protection for the ex-communist country - especially since Russia annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine.
That optimism is underpinned by gradually rising living standards. Net monthly wages have nearly doubled to 1,706 lei ($530) from 918 lei when Romania joined the EU in 2007. The economy grew an annual 3.8 percent in the first quarter of 2014.
EU membership has also given Romanians freedom to travel in search of work and better pay in wealthier European states - a far cry from the heavily restricted borders that hemmed them in under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu until 1989.
Romanians working abroad have sent home more than 30 billion euros ($41 billion) in remittances since the EU accession.
Not everyone in the wealthier EU states is happy to have them. UKIP published a full page newspaper advertisement that included statistics of crimes committed by Romanians in Britain.
Farage rejected accusations of racism by "a politically correct elite" but said: "Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door."
Even in ex-communist Hungary, the extreme-right Jobbik party came second in last weekend's elections. But neither Romania nor Bulgaria elected a single Eurosceptic candidate from the far right or far left, with voting a straight fight between the two biggest mainstream parties in each country.
Turnout in Romania at 32 percent was higher than five years ago when it voted in its first EU election, and compared with 23.8 percent in Poland and just 13 percent in Slovakia.
"In Romania, Bulgaria as well as in other ex-communist countries, there is a prevalent pro-European enthusiasm," said Catalin Augustin Stoica, General Manager at the Romanian pollster, Center for Urban and Regional Sociology (CURS).
"We shouldn't forget that Romania provided a mass of migrants to wealthy Europe - Spain and Italy especially - who support their families in Romania financially. So all those living here see a tangible advantage in European Union membership, a source of subsistence."
Sofia taxi driver Georgi Dishkov recalled UKIP's forecasts that Balkan immigrants would flood into Britain at the start of this year when the remaining restrictions on seeking work there ended - an influx that has so far failed to materialize.
"Why do Bulgarians have to worry about the victories of parties such as Farage's?" said 34-year-old Dishkov. "They made similar threats to Bulgarians and Romanians before the New Year too, but we all saw that nothing happened."
However, the mood could change if the election results led to EU policy changes, especially on the movement of workers.
"We are concerned," said Ioan Mircea Pascu, a former defense minister and now a Romanian MEP. "The big surprise is that these extremists have won in Europe's most democratic countries which have been regarded as the pillars of the continent's democracy."
"I think they are moving in this direction of enforcing curbs to free movement. It is possible that this will happen. Xenophobia and attacks against Romanians and Bulgarians will also intensify," Pascu, who is also Vice-Chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, told Reuters.
The issue of Romanian and Bulgarian entry into the passport-free Schengen zone - vetoed by wealthier EU states which say they have not done enough to secure their borders and tackle corruption - still rankles.
Romanian political commentator Mircea Marian said there was now almost no chance of gaining support in the European Parliament. "Mainstream parties will surely make this concession to far right groupings in a bid to stop migration," he said.
However, the bulk of the political and media debate in both countries has focused on the national fallout from the results.
"The election was a mini-referendum for the government. The general debate about Europe was weak, the whole vote was focused on domestic issues," said Kiril Avramov, a political analyst with the New Bulgarian University.
However, he added: "The vote of the people and the tone of the key political players showed that Bulgaria is firmly in the European orbit, and wants to be a part of the union."
Millions of Romanians and Bulgarians celebrated their EU entry with fireworks and street parties in January 2007, despite some misgivings elsewhere in the bloc that the two former Communist states were too poor and corrupt to be let in.
Romanians' enthusiasm remains intact. A Eurobarometer in March found 76 percent were optimistic about their country's future in the EU compared with a European average of 53 percent.
"People, Romanians want to remain in the European Union as it provides money for the modernization of our economy," said 77-year-old pensioner Petre Ioan in Bucharest.
"I'm optimistic about the European Union. They and NATO defend us, according to their rules it should function like a shield," said Ioan, a former river boat captain.
In contrast to the corruption that has riddled their domestic politics, Romanians have a much less hostile attitude to politicians and civil servants in Brussels than, say, the British. Romanian leaders also frequently make speeches with the European Union flag in the backdrop - something that would be anathema to their more Eurosceptic counterparts.
Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean said after the election results that Romanians still cherished the European political project. "This attachment is demonstrated by the absence of political formations running on an anti-EU program," he said.
In Bulgaria, attitudes towards the EU are more diverse. While surveys suggest Bulgarians still have a favorable attitude towards Brussels, pollster Alpha Research says there is a rising Euroscepticism born out of frustration that wages and living standards have not risen fast enough. Bulgaria is poorer than Romania, has a fast-shrinking population and economic growth lags that of its Black Sea neighbor.
Over the long term, that could have a much more harmful effect on Bulgarian attitudes towards the bloc than the performance of anti-immigrant and far right parties.
"... There is a rising disillusionment with the EU, because many Bulgarians feel that have not benefited enough from the membership, but have instead been restricted by more and more demands," said Rumiana Dimitrova of Alpha Research.
"On a political level the debate about rising Euroscepticism is not on the agenda, as Bulgarians are reflecting in their own problems - incomes, jobs," she said.
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