Joan Smith: Send those foreigners back where they belong: Britain

How different it was in 1989, when we cheered these plucky nations
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The Independent Online

In the never-ending search for affordable holiday homes, the buzz is that Bulgaria is the new Greece. There are websites advertising the charms of villages perched on the shores of the Black Sea, and TV documentaries about enterprising Brits hoping to make a fortune out of building luxury apartments there. I can't say I warmed to the woman I saw in one of these who kept lecturing her team of local architects and builders on the need for top-of-the-range bathroom fittings, but otherwise nobody bats an eyelid when one of us goes to this small country (population 7.4m) and builds a dream home - or makes a killing in the property market.

The prospect of some Bulgarians coming to this country in the same entrepreneurial spirit, on the other hand, is seen as such a bad thing that the Home Secretary, John Reid, announced restrictions last week on their right to work here when Bulgaria and Romania join the EU in January next year. The ban on all but a handful of workers is political in the worst sense, effectively the government's public penance for underestimating the number of Poles who wanted to come here after the last round of enlargement in May 2004.

I'm not aware of a crime wave caused by immigrants from Lodz, and most people I know have nothing but praise for Polish builders, dentists and so on. If there are fears that workers from Central and Eastern Europe will drive wages down, that is a reason for making sure as few of them as possible are employed in the black economy. But the new restrictions are likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Reid's announcement won't stop them coming here on tourist visas, and those who can't get jobs legally will look for work that pays cash-in-hand, without the protection of the minimum wage. And the changes won't apply at all to the self-employed. I can't help thinking that the successful campaign waged against the new EU countries in the popular press misunderstands the nature of 21st-century European immigration. Hundreds of thousands of Poles have come here but the vast majority are young, hard-working people who aren't a drain on the British economy or the NHS. More to the point, for every bus or plane full of Poles or Lithuanians that arrives here, another makes the journey in the opposite direction; this is how Europeans live now, and that includes growing numbers of people from the UK.

I rarely hear mention of the fact that in 2004 a record number of British citizens left this country to live abroad. Many of them will come back at some stage or move between homes here and parallel lives in Spain, France or Eastern Europe. With the British press full of articles portraying East Europeans as a bunch of uneducated peasants and mafiosi, it shouldn't come as a surprise that their Bulgarian counterparts are currently campaigning just as fervently against immigration from our crime- and drug-ridden island. How different it all is from the heady days of 1989, when we cheered as the plucky Bulgarians rose against their hated dictator, Todor Zhivkov. Politicians in this part of the world rushed to welcome the people of these nascent democracies into the European club. Now the British government has decided to let a few thousand Bulgarians and Romanians apply for low-paid jobs in two of the most exploited sectors of our economy, agriculture and food processing, while blocking virtually all the rest.

Let them pluck chickens, in other words. Meanwhile, I happen to know of this lovely stone house in a village near Plovdiv, in a hunting and fishing area, on the market for only £8,000 ...