Earlier this year, i sent one of its reporters to Romania to try to find out if there really would be a new wave of immigrants from eastern Europe when entry is relaxed in January. Most people we interviewed said they wouldn’t come to the UK. Some noted that our health service compared extremely favourably with the Romanian system... And others, like Elena Greta, A Roma mother who lives on a landfill dump outside the second-largest city, Cluj-Napoca, answered honestly: “If I could provide a better life and condition for my children, I would think about getting away.”
While our correspondent was there, he also wrote a more flippant piece, interviewing Brits who had chosen to move to Romania - an increasingly attractive proposition for several of you, judging by my morning inbox. The British reported corruption and bureaucracy, but also low cost of living, £25 a year council tax, beer for £1 a pint, flat income tax of 16 per cent and successful dating. They were warmly received by their hosts, albeit occasionally taken advantage of.
Over here, the Romanian ambassador claimed (a little hyperbolically), Romanian people “are used as a scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in Britain at the moment.”
The case for much greater immigration was made by the Treasury’s official watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, in July. Britain, it said, must welcome hundreds of thousands of new migrant workers every year in order to stabilise public finances over the next half-century and to help pay the growing bills for the NHS, pensions and care. Migrants to the UK tend (at the moment) to be young, they pay a third more in tax than they receive in benefits, and fill some pretty tough jobs.
But the wind is changing across Europe. Germany and France followed David Cameron yesterday in curbing new EU migration. All of them fear a boost for right-wing parties in next spring’s European parliament elections.
The debate is so poisonous now because of successive governments’ failures to hold honest, dispassionate debates about the merits and challenges of immigration. Fact: we live in a relatively prosperous nation and more people will move here. Challenge: build enough homes, create enough jobs and public services that can cope.