Four E.U. Nations Stoke Fears of an Immigrant Flood

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Thierry Roge / Reuters

E.U. leaders pose for a family photo during an European Union heads of state summit in Brussels, June 17, 2010.

Immigration has always been a contentious issue in Europe. But these days, with enduring economic turmoil further fueling concerns over rising unemployment, European nations are especially sensitive about the prospect of foreigners taking jobs away from their citizens. So it's not difficult to understand why leaders in many European Union countries are displeased at seeing their peers in four member nations extend the promise of citizenship to nearly five million people — most of whom come from outside the E.U., with its relatively high standards of living.

It's a trend that's been growing since May, when Hungary decided to grant citizenship to any ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia who apply for it. That followed Bucharest's move in April 2009 to vastly facilitate naturalization procedures for over a million people in Moldova with ethnic or linguistic ties to Romania, a simplification Bulgaria replicated earlier this year for nearly two million people in Macedonia and Turkey with Bulgarian roots. All of this is after Spain two years ago announced that it would grant nationality to foreigners whose Spanish parents or grandparents left the country to flee the civil war and Franco's subsequent dictatorship. Around 225,000 people in Cuba, Central America and South America have already applied for Spanish citizenship under the scheme, and 117,000 have already obtained it.

Spanish officials explain their decision as part of a wider effort to fully examine, digest and — when possible — repair the wrongs of the Franco era. The motives of the other three countries are more complex, and are linked to the loss of territories and populations under treaties that ended World War I; the flight or exile of people during the Communist era; and traditional Balkan nationalism exhibited by politicians looking for public support by embracing ethnic peers viewed as having been forced into expatriation by fate.

Rough estimates put the total number of people potentially covered by the citizenship offers at five million, though many within that total are already E.U. nationals — some 1.4 million ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, for example. More than half of the estimated five million reside outside the E.U., but not all — perhaps even not most — of those will use this chance to relocate to the E.U. Many who will embrace offers of nationality from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Spain are expected to continue living in their mother countries, while others won't even bother applying to become citizens of nations they view as entirely foreign lands.

Still, even the potential of large migratory influxes scares some in the E.U., whose 27 members collectively granted citizenship to just 690,000 applicants in 2009. When the E.U. expanded to include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004 — and then Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 — there were fears that a deluge of cheap workers from the east (the so-called "Polish plumbers") would swamp richer E.U. labor markets. That flood, however, turned out to be more like a trickle, and a large number of people who did migrate eventually returned home. Still, some observers (again) warn that Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Spain granting citizenship to people from poorer countries is in fact "backdoor enlargement" that will spark a westward exodus.

Blame those short memories on unemployment rates that have surged across Europe during the recession. E.U.-wide joblessness remained steady at 9.6% in June — 10% in euro-zone countries — with Spain leading with 20%. Many experts say that immigration and post-enlargement European migration have not significantly aggravated Europe's unemployment problem, nor prevented people out of work from finding new jobs. Despite that, anti-immigration sentiment is running high in the E.U., often stoked by politicians seeking to blame economic woes and crime on foreigners.

It doesn't help that, in some countries, much of the scarce work appears to be going to foreigners. New labor statistics from the U.K. covering April and June 2010 show that four out of every five people hired during that period were foreigners. True, over half of those were E.U. citizens. But in a nation with a 7.8% unemployment rate, the knowledge that foreigners hold 3.85 million of the U.K.'s 29 million jobs is already testing the public's patience. The mere possibility of non-nationals arriving en masse to look for work under new citizenship schemes created by other countries is causing some to say "enough." "It is astonishing that almost one million Moldovans have applied for Romanian citizenship," Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the anti-immigration group MigrationWatch, told Britain's Daily Telegraph. "It's essential that Britain acts, together with her E.U. partners, or we will have another flood of cheap labor that would be most unwelcome in a recession."

In reality, however, cheap labor is most unwelcome even in boom times. Three years after they joined the E.U., Bulgarian and Romanian nationals must still obtain permits before they can work in any of ten other partner nations, despite freedom of movement being a founding European principle. Germany and Austria maintain similar restrictions on citizens of eight other eastern E.U. countries, all of them pre-dating the recession. Add those to the concerns over four E.U. members launching new naturalization processes and it seems that, in terms of internal migration, the European Union isn't quite so united after all.