A local rugby side from the West of England were in for quite a surprise when they arrived for their spring tour in Romania. the Daily Mail reported last week ("The rugby match that was lost in translation," 4 May). The Dorchester Gladiators consist of over-40s veterans, and hence they were somewhat bemused to discover a packed stadium and television crews awaiting them when they arrived at the ground of Romania's top side, Steaua Bucharest. They were completely shocked to see their opponent, all fit and under 30, "Steaua's first XV: a team of rugged professionals including nine internationals, a match for most of Europe's top sides."
Somewhere along the line the concept of "veterans" had clearly been the subject of confusion: Steaua believed they were due to play a team of England's finest. Surveyor Nigel Jones, 43: "We started to get worried when our hosts asked us if we wanted to do a training session the night before, which is not exactly our style. We did our pre-match build up in the bar and didn't get in until 4 am before the match, which began at 11. We tried to convince them we weren't any good, but they thought we were just trying to wind them up." Quickly the Romanians realised the situation once the game was underway and eased up, still winning comfortably 61-17.
It's tempting to view the British peoples' attitude towards immigration from Central and Eastern Europe in the same light. Is it not conceivable that public debate on the issue is on the wrong wavelength?
A panic about asylum-claiming immigrants seems to be gripping many different parts of the EU at present, with planned enlargement further fuelling concerns. Refreshingly, two major articles in the new issue of The Economist ("Go for it" and "A continent on the move," 6 May) cut through the scare-mongering to tackle the whole question of immigration. They follow in the footsteps of recent leaders in The Times ("Symptoms and causes," 19 April) and The Spectator ("Be my guest-worker," 21 April) - both of which were reviewed in this column two weeks ago - which have bucked the public trend by calling for more immigration, not less.
Not full up
Europe should not think of itself as "full up." Before it builds itself into Fortress Europe it must come to realise that it needs immigration - certainly to inject ever more variety into cultural life - but also to breathe new energy into ageing economies, and to bring down the dependency ratio: "How can Europe reconcile its economic need for more immigrants with its apparent political distaste for them?" asks The Economist.
This distaste is most keenly felt on the current eastern borders of the community, in Germany and Austria. Income and wealth differentials across the borders with Central European states have led to increased immigration, legal and otherwise, into Western Europe since 1989. There has also been the growth of a new kind of migrant, a cross-border commuter, shuttling back and forth, often only spending a short period of time in the host country in the West before returning home.
In addition, there is a short-term flow in the other direction: "Germans flock East for cheap sex and petrol," reported Allan Hall in The Times (29 April). Bargain-hunting German day-tourists who visit frontier towns in the Czech Republic for "TBZ" - tanken (filling up the car), bumsen (slang for sex) and zigaretten - illustrate why German small businesses are reported as being afraid that competition from the East will undermine them. On the other hand, Hall feels the German government itself still sees advantages in pursuing early membership for the first wave of applicant states in order to normalise prices and prevent these inequalities and their effects. The aim is to spread stability through economic growth.
The asylum saga in Britain
In the run-up to UK local elections on Thursday 4 May, Conservative Party leader William Hague caused further controversy over immigration. Appearing on ITV's Dimbleby show on 30 April, he claimed that the number of refugees claiming asylum in the UK was "out of control," and would cause political extremism if not tackled: "We will end up seeing more National Front marches if we fail to deal with these problems." He was consequently accused by political rivals, commentators and sections of the media of fanning the flames of extreme-right hatred and violence.
Some commentators drew a comparison with the infamous 1968 speech by the late Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician, who had warned of "rivers of blood" if immigration were not restricted. Powell was dismissed from the shadow cabinet as a result. The Mirror was scathing: "Is Tory leader William Hague the new Enoch Powell? Powell was a huge political figure with a brilliant mind and enormous following. Hague has none of those qualities. All they have in common is the way they stoked up race hate while pretending they were not." ("Voice of The Mirror: Hague's Shame," 1st May).
No less an authority than the spokesman for the far-right British National Party (BNP), Dr Phil Edwards, claimed that the Tories were purloining his party's clothes (Charles Reiss, "BNP: Hague's stealing our line on race," Evening Standard, 4 May). "He's pinching our campaign on asylum seekers," said Dr Edwards, whose party's candidate for mayor of London polled 2 per cent in this week's election, adding that Hague was, "playing the race card."
Home Secretary Jack Straw argued (David Hughes, "Hague is pandering to the NF on asylum seekers, says Straw," Daily Mail, 1 May) that "Mr Hague has fed anxieties which can lead to extremism by gross exaggeration of the asylum situation."
However, many would claim Straw has himself exaggerated the asylum situation. Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail ("Just who is stoking up the race fires?", 2 May) defended Hague: "He may be opportunistic but he is no extremist on race, nor is he trying to re-ignite the embers of racism." Glover also pointed out that Labour has been careless with words too: it was Straw's deputy minister Barbara Roche who recently described Romanian women begging with children as "vile."
Labour MP Denis MacShane (described by Glover as "a devout Blairite") claimed that, "The Tory party is exposing itself as the most extreme of the traditional right-wing parties in Europe."
A further contribution to the debate came from the largely unwelcome (as far as British politicians are concerned) source of Jörg Haider, who has just resigned as leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party. During his first major interview on British television (Newsnight, BBC2, 3 May), he bemoaned his country's current "victim" status: "Austria has taken responsibility for all different problems in all the member states of the European Union. For instance, some countries have problems with the immigration question, like Britain. They have a rigid and strong immigration policy and a Labour Government, and compared with the Austrian immigration policy you will see that we have a more moderate policy than the British. But we are attacked (for) it and we are labelled as xenophobic politicians.
"I think in several points you can compare our policy with the policy of Tony Blair," Haider continued, though the examples he cited in this instance were in the fields of education and macroeconomics, rather than immigration.
Shooting oneself in the foot
From the centre of Europe last week, a painful story suggests itself as a metaphor for the continent's current immigration policy: "A building worker in Munich accidentally nailed himself to the floor with a nail gun. The man was laying floorboards in a loft when the gun fired a 6-inch nail through his boot and foot into the floor." ("News in brief: Worker nails foot to floor," Daily Telegraph, 29 April)
Oliver Craske, 7 May 2000
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