"We have lived in fear of that lot for decades," the Austrian farmer told Heindrich the border guard, gesturing over the border into Hungary and beyond imagining the hordes descending unchecked upon his land. "It only became easier when the Iron Curtain fell."
The BBC ran a well-received series of four films this week following a diverse group of individuals, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, each of whom was on a quest to find his or her own version of utopia by emigrating to a different part of Europe. The programme documented their diverse experiences with various related authorities. "Desperately Seeking EUtopia," a pan-European co-production which has probably been screened in several countries around the continent, was hailed by Peter Barnard in The Times ("A rich source of undemanding pap," 28 April) as "an absorbing series on asylum seekers in the European Union."
The starting premise was that "since the fall of the Berlin Wall four million migrants have entered the EU." Heindrich and his fellow Austrian border guards scan the fields from their lookout post, using heat-sensitive radar to detect illegal migrants attempting to slip past through the tall crops under cover of darkness. The guards are instructed to turn back anyone entering the country illegally. Heindrich believes in the need to control migration:
It causes crime. If they can't find a job, and they don't go home then things go wrong for them. That situation can't continue. It reminds me of Germany. They already have lots of Turks there. If you talk to Germans you'll hear them complain and moan. Crime increases, and at some point there will be a clash. Nobody wants that.
The third episode followed a Romanian man, Robert, one of those who had been caught attempting to cross from Hungary into Austria. He is returned to Hungary where he is detained for questioning and gains a criminal record before waiting to be deported back to Romania. From his detention centre in Győr he tells the film-makers that "I only want to work." Endearingly frank, he admits that the EU is not his dream home, only a means to bettering himself and his family:
Maybe Romania is my dream?... It's a financial problem, it's a money problem. Romania is a beautiful country. In my soul everything is good there but the life is hard. If Romania give me all the things I don't go. I don't want Austria, I don't want Germany, and I don't want Italy. But now in Italy it's good for me because he don't say, "Get out of my country." That is it. France the same. England the same. Because you want to work? Work. It's not a problem. You find work? Work. In Romania I find work but it's hard to live.
Compare and contrast
The first episode had contrasted Heindrich in Austria with Don Cesare, a generous-hearted priest who heads a church-run reception centre at San Foca, on the southern tip of Italy's Adriatic coast. The asylum-claiming arrivals from across the water number around 100 per day, most of them from the former Yugoslavia and also Albania. The centre's policy is to offer a warm welcome and a fast track to a residency permit. (Don Cesare is filmed advising a young Romani man from Bosnia to say that he is from Kosovo in order to facilitate getting his permit.) The programme's narrator notes that this is done in the knowledge that 80 per cent of migrants arriving in Italy move on to other EU countries across the open borders.
A less attractive image of new migrants was painted in the second episode which followed Yuli, a 22-year-old Ukrainian keen to explore life in Germany and, when he discovers that Berlin has "too many blacks" for his liking, on the Canary Islands.
Interesting counterpoint was provided by a couple of other stories in the series. One highlighted the income inequalities within the EU. Half a million properties in southern Europe are owned by northern Europeans, and this was illustrated through a film portraying the tense relations between native Portuguese and those Germans who have purchased land in Portugal or wish to do so. Whether or not EU enlargement goes ahead as planned, the consequences of such inequalities in wealth are already well known to Central Europeans and are here to stay.
Poland, of course, has laws restricting foreign ownership of Polish land. This proves to be a big problem for the hero of another story, a Dutch dairy farmer-turned-lorry driver named Henk, who is looking to move to Poland with his family and buy a farm there. He likes Poland and the Poles, and he sees opportunities in the relatively underdeveloped state of Polish agriculture: "The worst Dutch farmer can do better than the best Polish farmer," he claims. After he has dropped off a shipment of computers in Poznan, we follow him over two days as he continues with his search. His ideal farm, he tells us, would be within 30 minutes of his favourite city, Gdansk.
But when he visits Ben, a Dutchman who has already made the move and successfully gained not only a farm in Poland but also Polish citizenship (through his contact at the Ministry), he finds a less than idyllic situation. Ben is convinced local Poles are stealing his potatoes, and we see him scanning his fields through binoculars looking for the culprits. As Jacques Perreti wrote in The Guardian ("Last Night's TV: Land and Freedom," 28 April), the programme "made a subtle parallel between Ben with his potatoes and Austrian border guards, eyes peeled for capitalism." In the current atmosphere of fevered dispute over the asylum issue, these considered films are most welcome.
Killing two birds with one lump
Maybe Henk and Ben need to switch to pigs? An article by Kate Connolly in The Guardian this week ("How pigs can save Polish miners' jobs," 27 April) offered hope for both coal miners and farmers of the Polish porker.
Poland is the world's sixth-largest pork-producing country but its pig farmers have for years been experiencing growing hardship due to the competition presented by cheap EU imports. At the same time the coal-mining industry has also suffered, with employment levels falling under the government's mining reform scheme, partly because the cheap, highly-polluting brown coal mined in large quantities in the past is no longer in such demand.
Time for the experts at the Pig Institute in Wroclaw to come to the rescue. Why not rescue both industries by feeding the pigs on brown coal? What's more, it actually seems to work: the pigs benefit, it's healthier and cheaper and environmentally more sound.
Connolly interviewed a scientist who has taken part in the seven-year study, "pig physiologist" Ania Rzasa: "The pigs we fed brown coal to were fatter, happier, healthier and less stressed than those who received only the standard chemical additives. Pigs also have very sensitive noses and they respond well to the smell of coal."
Not only that, it also turns out that the manure of coal-consuming pigs may - perhaps unsurprisingly - burn very well. Connolly reports the theory that "pig briquettes" could be "a cheap and effective source of fuel that could bring Poland within reach of future EU requirements on renewable energy."
Ania Rzasa unashamedly admits that she has dedicated her life to the pig. Proof of her emotional and professional attachment is borne out by the paraphernalia covering the desk and walls of her office at the Pig Institute in Wroclaw. The pig physiologist is surrounded by pin-up pigs in various guises and by porcine flower pots. She salivates over a pigs of the world chart, hailing the virtues of the long-horned babirusa and the fat black limousin. But Ms Rzasa's work over the past few years has been far more than just a playful obsession.
A miner at the Sieniawa brown coal mine in eastern Poland struck a note of disbelief when interviewed by Connolly: "In the old days coal came out of the ground, polluted the air and created lots of slag heaps," he says. "Now they're proposing that pigs will eat it, shit it and it'll go back in the ground and everyone will be happy? It sounds too good to be true."
Henk, with his eye on the main chance in Polish farming, may just be climbing aboard his lorry for another trip to Poland, this time looking for a pig farm near Sieniawa.
Desperately seeking mathematicians
A further item lauding the inventiveness of Central Europeans was Robert Wright's feature on "Hungary's bankable boffins" (Financial Times, 26 April). Wright picked up on Hungary's international strength in Research & Development, based on a traditional reputation for producing fine mathematicians:
According to Gábor Élő, R&D manager in Hungary for Finland's Nokia, nearly every significant mobile phone maker now has some Hungary-based R&D. The development is particularly remarkable because, Dr Élő says, no other country in eastern Europe's former Communist bloc has a single such facility. Nokia has three R&D centres in Hungary, all working on software. It employs 350 in R&D, a figure that will rise to 550.
This investment cannot be explained merely in terms of cheap labour: Élő claims that the more important factor is the strength of the educational system, especially in mathematics, and the availability of the researchers. Historically Hungary has a great record in the field - Wright cites the Hungarian pioneers of nuclear physics - while the present-day culture does not denigrate mathematicians' social status, unlike in many Western European states where they are considered to be "nerds".
Wright also notes Élő's explanation that the establishment of foreign R&D centres in Hungary may merely be a natural consequence of earlier investments:
Every country likes to see more than [simple] commercial things [like] a sales office. But at first, any multinational company comes to sell its products. After that, if it's a reasonable business environment, they come for production. After that, if it's satisfied with the sales and production, comes the strategic, very sensitive business of R&D.
Wright finished with some justifiable optimism for Hungarians, so I shall too: "The prize could be significant. Hungarians, who played a key role in planning the atom bomb, a defining technology of the 20th century, may design one just as important to the 21st." Let's hope it's not another bomb or another utopia. Pig briquettes would do.
Oliver Craske, 28 April 2000