In the summer of 1992, after two months teaching English at Bucharest University, I asked my students which lesson they had enjoyed the most. In unison, they said: “the one about Margaret Thatcher”.
Bucharest was a bit of a mess then, and it was Ceaușescu’s fault. His plans for ‘systematizing’ Romania’s capital around his grey Palace of the People, the heaviest building in the world, were half complete. He had managed to destroy much of the city’s historic centre but not yet replace it with all the blocks of flats he wanted to squeeze people into.
Bucharest was also a mess because of the revolution of Christmas 1989 that finally brought Ceaușescu’s rule to an end. Important buildings, like Bucharest University’s library, were destroyed or pockmarked with bullet holes. Temporary wooden crosses marked where people had been injured or killed in the ‘Mineriads’ of 1990/91, when miners came to Bucharest to attack those protesting at the ex-communists who had seized power.
The west was intruding but in odds ways to begin with. The most visible signs were chewing gum everywhere and a graffiti battle between the local fans of Depeche Mode and Metallica. Seeing a huge mass of men clamouring for sight of something, I joined them to see what the fuss was about. In the middle was a little table with some American pornographic magazines on.
Romania has long been famous for two things: Dracula and the Roma (gypsies). Given that Dracula is fictional (albeit based on Vlad the Impaler) and the Roma live all over the world – with apparently more in the United States than in Romania – that is an inaccurate picture.
In fact, Romania has a bit of everything. Anyone who has criticised the country in recent days without having been there should book a vacation without delay. They’ll find skiing holidays, beach holidays and lots of sites of historic interest. Visit Bucharest and you’ll discover why it is still known as the ‘Paris of the east’.
Having lived under such a brutal communist regime for so long, Romanians cherish their freedom just as much as we Britons do. It’s not because I taught the lesson on Margaret Thatcher well that they liked it so much. (I didn’t.) It was because they genuinely thought she had bought them freedom by challenging communism head on and never giving an inch.
I tried to give my students a fair assessment of Thatcherism (despite being a paid-up Tory). I spoke about the gap between rich and poor, north and south and even played the Morrissey song ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’. But they didn’t buy it. Whatever I said about the shortcomings paled to insignificance against her anti-communist stance.
It’s a sweet irony that the Iron Lady is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so. Yet back in 2007, when Romania joined the EU, both groups also supported the concept of a wider Europe. It is those seeds we are now reaping.
Some of the opposition to Romanian and Bulgarian newcomers arises from the changes they will bring. As the parent of a child starting school in 2014, I understand that. Looking around our local primary schools, I have been astonished by the expansionary pressures they face – even before any new influx. It is the duty of politicians to respond to such problems and absurd to claim they must not be discussed.
But the debate goes wrong when people treat Romanians as an alien species. After all, they understand the fear of change as much as we do. William Blacker’s book ‘Along the Enchanted Way’, published in 2010, shows just how immense the pressures of the new world have been on Romanian villages and gypsy communities. But read it alongside Carmen Bugan’s harrowing recent memoir ‘Burying the Typewriter’ on the treatment of her dissident father under communism to remind you how necessary it was for change to happen.
Life has improved for many but those Romanians coming to the UK will have the same motives as those who voluntarily chose to attend our English lessons soon after the revolution – they want to better themselves. Of course that’s not true of all – just as not all British people moving abroad do so for honourable ends – and those camping on Park Lane do pose a challenge for the authorities.
Yet the current furore has missed a key point: Britain is actually less appealing to most Romanians than it was to those Poles who arrived during the 2000s because there are fewer historic links between our two countries. Romanian is a Romance language that has more in common with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese than it does with English. Such things matter as much as benefit rules in deciding where to settle.
As we now start to assimilate those who do arrive, we should spare a thought for the captivating country they come from because every time a skilled person leaves for the UK, their skills shortage gets a little worse and ours gets a little better.
Nicholas Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute