NEW YORK — Staring down a flood of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants when restrictions expire at the end of the year, British ministers recently proposed a unique idea: an ad campaign to make the UK look like a terrible place to live.
The proposal from the far-right wing of David Cameron’s coalition government aimed to highlight some of the more unappealing aspects of British life, from the infamously dreary weather to the lack of jobs.
The idea was quickly discarded, but not in time to keep it from making its way to the public, where it was — predictably — met with gleeful mockery. The Guardian invited readers to submit their own ideas for celebrating national shortcomings. Amateur artists responded with depictions of pale, woebegone beachgoers and the British Isles partly submerged in the Atlantic, along with advertisements of incompetent leaders, bees dying en masse, and streets paved with trash rather than gold. The weather remained the most popular subject of dismay.
For their part, Bulgarians and Romanians have responded with their own campaigns. “Half of our women look like Kate. The other half, like her sister,” reads a pro-Romania advertisement in Romanian online magazine Gandul.info, referring to the Duchess of Cambridge. “We may not like Britain, but you will love Romania.”
Another boasts, “Our draft beer is less expensive than your bottled water.”
Yurukov.net, a Bulgarian website, offered a new spin on the well-known wartime poster, remodeled to read, “Keep calm and move to Bulgaria.”
Alex Lazarowicz, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, says that British fears of an immigration flood are likely exaggerated. Judging from past delayed labor market openings, such as Germany’s in 2011, he predicts “barely a trickle.” The UK, he adds, will likely be a less desirable location even without a negative propaganda campaign, given that it is still hurting financially from the economic downturn.
Still, British political parties remain united in their position on free movement of workers, whether the result of legitimate worries or political posturing. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has taken chairmanship of a cabinet committee tasked with deterring labor migration from Romania and Bulgaria. The Labour Party’s Ed Miliband said in a public speech that the party’s 2004 position supporting immigration and free movement was “wrong” and is now steering Labour into an attack position.
Despite some dissent from within the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party, Prime Minister Cameron has moved ahead with efforts to discourage immigration. The advertising angle seemingly ruled out, his focus is on restricting access to social services for new immigrants. National Health Services, welfare benefits, and social housing will all become more difficult for newcomers to obtain. While the reforms are supposedly aimed at immigrants from across the European Economic Area, it is clear that Romanians and Bulgarians are the targets of deterrence.
Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, has publicly criticized the way in which the British government is treating Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. “The UK debate has taken a worrying turn as it depicts lower-skilled migrants as dangerous foreigners coming to steal jobs, lower salaries and spoil the health system,” Muiznieks told the Guardian.
Meanwhile, Gandul has made it clear that their pro-Romania campaign is more than a clever joke.
“I wouldn’t say we were deeply offended by the British initiative, but we felt it deserved an answer that tackles this ridiculous fear of us invading the UK. The solution was to turn this [false] problem on its head and invite the British to invade us instead,” said Mihai Gongu, creative director at GMP Advertising. The company has teamed up with Gandul and online marketing agency Webstyler for the campaign.
The campaign has launched a website, Why Don’t You Come Over?, which offers Britons an array of couches on which they can stay. “We want you to see for yourselves what Romania is about. Needn’t worry, it’s on us,” the site proclaims, alongside a map of available, user-submitted couches. The site has also begun posting job opportunities for Brits, and the ability for Romanians to post employment offers.
In anticipation of a football match between Chelsea and Steaua Bucharest, held in Bucharest, the Romanian publication ProSport was brought on board. Campaign posters featuring the slogan “Let’s talk football” were featured prominently on its website and in its print edition.
Lia and Dan Perjovschi, a married Romanian artist team, have hung their work in galleries across Europe and the United States. Now, according to the Voice of Russia, they are in London, assuring locals that there will be no invasion. Romanians, they say, are not eager to leave their home.
Of course, if that isn’t sufficiently reassuring, Londoners can always choose a couch and see for themselves.
Dana Watters is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her area of concentration is international security policy with a specialization in East Central Europe.