In stark contrast to the sweeping hyperbole which filled opinion pages in the weekend newspapers, O’Neill has written an intelligent commentary of issues surrounding immigration to Britain from central and eastern Europe, prompted by attacks on properties housing immigrants in Belfast and a subsequent exodus of Romanian families from their homes. In particular he examines the plight of Roma, many of whom have suffered institutional prejudice, rights abuses and violence in their home countries, before being subjected to wanton thuggery by youths in South Belfast.
O’Neill highlights two issues which are particularly pertinent to the case of Romanian Roma. First, countries from previously communist parts of Europe have been admitted to the EU without sufficient scrutiny of their legal treatment of minorities. Certainly this has partly been influenced by good will and good faith on the part of longer standing EU members. There was (and remains to a degree) widespread sympathy for neighbours who suffered under totalitarian regimes, a desire to help them recover from their ordeal and a belief that Union membership brings material benefits which would naturally be accompanied by an embrace of accepted western values. Although it was well-meaning, this attitude was shaped by the conviction that the accession countries should be grateful enough to immediately conform to norms which are patchily applied even in some long standing EU states.
Thus, in the Baltic nations, citizenship laws which discriminate against the sizeable Russian minority remain and in the central and southern reaches of the former eastern bloc, Roma frequently suffer official disadvantages which reflect popular prejudice against their ethnicity. Belfast might currently be smarting from shame induced by its least enlightened citizens’ violence against the minority, but it is far from unusual, much less unique, for racist crimes to be perpetrated against Roma. Indeed, O’Neill observes, similar outrages are too often murderous. It makes a sensational headline, and pleases editors, to brand Belfast ‘the racist capital of Europe’, but although it might represent faint praise to point it out, the claim scarcely bears serious scrutiny.
The second plank of the Unionist Lite article deals with the two tier system for EU citizens who wish to live and work in the United Kingdom. There is an internal inconsistency in this approach which feeds the perception that Romanians and Bulgarians who come to this country are each work shy, unassimilable gypsies who's means of support are crime and begging. Whilst nationals from the newest member states enjoy freedom of movement throughout the European Union, they encounter a range of obstacles if they wish to work in the UK. These measures were instigated due to concern that the influx of eastern Europeans which followed the 2004 accessions would be repeated on a larger scale with poorer inhabitants of Romania and Bulgaria.
The truth is that, whilst there may be sound arguments against untrammelled immigration, it is not tenable to treat citizens from two EU states differently to citizens from the other twenty five. In so doing government is institutionalising the notion that such people are somehow ‘less European’ than their counterparts from other member states. Britain must either press for more rigorous criteria to be applied whenever possible accession countries are considered for entry to the Union or it must look at the reasons why the UK is such a popular destination for new EU citizens.
The issue goes to the heart of Britain’s relationship with the EU, and indeed the nature of the Union itself. If it is predicated on free trade then the movement of labour is inevitable. If its outlook is strategic and its purpose is to disseminate a certain set of political values, broadly democratic in character, then there will naturally be an imperative to expand to the south and east. Whichever inclinations shape the European Union, membership entails consequences, both positive and negative. It is naïve to believe that Britain can immunise itself from those consequences.
Of course such abstraction does not colour the thinking of a hate-filled youth, who propels a brick through a window because he perceives that the family cowering behind it is ‘different’. He is responsible for his own actions and the rigour of the law should be applied to him harshly. But there are many levels of dysfunction which form the backdrop to his crime. Whether it is the parents, who have not inculcated a sense of decency into their son, whether it is a failure in policing his area, whereby criminal elements operating as self-appointed ‘representatives’ are allowed to mediate on behalf of his 'community’, or whether it is inconsistencies in government level policy on immigration. It takes a thoughtful commentator like O’Neill to bring out the complexities of an issue which has precipitated a range of much less insightful analysis over the past week.