One of the British Europeans — a Romanian-born activist and researcher, Alexandra Bulat — tells a rather perplexing story of highly mixed feelings, political confusion and various difficulties faced by migrant workers and students from EU countries in post-Brexit Britain.
In the United Kingdom, the terms “Europe” and “European” appear to have acquired a negative connotation. Unpleasant incidents are becoming more common. How did we end up in this predicament?
Yes, a lot has changed since the Brexit referendum, unfortunately. The British people voted to leave the EU, which took effect on January 1, 2021. One of the outcomes was that the United Kingdom weakened its immigration ties with the EU.
Citizens of other European countries who arrived in the United Kingdom before December 31, 2020, must apply for a new residence status. It’s known as settled or pre-settled status. Those who arrived before this date can apply to keep their current rights. Those who arrived after the “transition period” between the United Kingdom and the European Union, on the other hand, will need a visa to work and study in the UK.
Many Europeans quickly realized that their rights had shifted and that they needed to take various steps to gain additional rights. Romanians and Bulgarians had full labor rights prior to Brexit since 2014 and did not believe that this would change in the future.
Your doctoral dissertation was about migrant communities in Europe as a whole. You’ve decided now to focus your research more on the formation of European migrant communities in the United Kingdom. Those communities are undoubtedly diverse, but is there a common thread running through them? Is there a desire to have those communities represented in politics?
Before 2016, I believe many of us were thinking about our birth country — whether we were Romanians, Bulgarians, or French — but after Brexit, many Europeans have developed a “European identity.” Because our rights are collectively changing, regardless of where we are from, we have a sense of unity. However, as you mentioned earlier, being European does not always have a positive connotation; this is especially true for those who have chosen to leave the EU. They voted to limit immigration from the EU, among other things. Certain stereotypes about immigration and the labor market played a role in this, and some media outlets were happy to capitalize on them.
You work with the3million, an organization to help migrants in the United Kingdom. How do they assist them in their new situation?
I became more interested in British politics after the Brexit referendum. I had no idea if I was eligible to vote in local elections or what other political rights I had as a Romanian citizen in the United Kingdom. In 2016, I began attending events advocating for the rights of Europeans in the United Kingdom. That’s how I discovered the3million. In 2017, the organization became official, registered, and began to play a significant role in the public. I agreed to help them out. Because there were few people from Eastern Europe present, I was the first Romanian to volunteer to assist with their activities.
When the system of residence in the United Kingdom changed, one of our main campaigns was launched. To apply for the new resident status, all Europeans had to pay a £65 fee at first. Our intervention was successful, and we were promised in 2018 that European citizens residing in the United Kingdom would no longer be required to pay the fee.
I’ve been working on a project called the Young Europeans Network since 2019. Young Europeans are underrepresented in both this non-governmental organization and British politics. I started working part-time for this organization the same year. We primarily work with European students in the UK on information and awareness projects, as well as promoting a positive image of Europeans. And, of course, we safeguard their rights; no one predicted that we would lose them as a result of Brexit. On the contrary, it was widely assumed that all Europeans living in Britain at the time would keep all of their rights.
You’ve recently been elected to the local council. What advantages does this position provide you with? Is it useful in your work with migrant groups?
In the United Kingdom, migration policies are decided at the national and parliamentary levels, not at the local level. However, a local councilor has a number of options for improving the lives of local migrants. As a local councilor, the very least one can do is ensure that everyone is aware of the current situation, both legally and politically. There’s also the issue of working conditions. Migrants are frequently subjected to harsh working conditions and mistreatment. People must understand their rights at work in order to know what those rights are, how much they must be paid, what benefits they are entitled to, and how much paid leave they can take, among other things.
Environmental policies, streets and highways, green spaces, schools, kindergartens, and other issues are dealt with by local politicians in the United Kingdom. Isn’t it true that whether you’re a migrant or a local, the state of the infrastructure is important to you?
Romanians are estimated to number around one million in the United Kingdom. There are also a significant number of Poles and Bulgarians. Is the political representation of those minorities proportional to their size, if any exists?
There isn’t a great deal of political representation. That is why I decided to run for office in the May 6, 2021 elections. I discovered a year ago that there are nearly 800,000 Romanians who have applied for residency status (i.e., those who are certain they want to stay here), and I wanted to see if there are any political positions held by Romanians here. Only two councillors were elected: one in London and the other in a small village in the east of England.
With the other nationalities, the situation is the same. My colleagues were able to locate ten or twelve Polish councillors. Poles outnumber Romanians in the United Kingdom. However, given the number of Poles in the UK, there are still insufficient local councillors I did not find any Bulgarian councillors. I have Bulgarian friends who work for NGOs and campaigns. I know Bulgarians who are members of the Labour Party, but they have never run for office. We can complain about our small number, but we must act. Let’s start with a local vote. Let’s run for office as well. We can participate in a variety of ways. There are numerous Romanian, Polish, and Bulgarian schools, as well as cultural centers.
You got into politics through the Labor Party, a left-wing political party. What led you to this political decision?
Many Romanians vote for the right-wing Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, but many Romanians also vote for the Labour Party, the Green Party, or the Liberal Democratic Party in Cambridge, where I ran in the local elections.
My life experience was what drew me to the political left. When I was 18, I moved to the United Kingdom. I came to study, but I also had to work to support myself while I was there. And I was astounded by a lot of things!
Great Britain had a very positive image in Romania. When I was in high school, I believed that Britain was a wealthy country with no poverty and that all British people lived decent lives. Then I began to travel extensively throughout the United Kingdom, seeing places that were strikingly similar to poor Romanian provinces. I recall visiting Jaywick, a village in the east of England. This region is among the ten poorest in Europe! I spoke with people and conducted interviews there; it was an eye-opening experience.
Such events influenced my set of values as well as my political beliefs. We’ve seen how people all over the world, not just Europeans, have been forced to endure terrible hardships. I joined the Labour Party, which advocates for a more equal society, one in which resources are distributed to benefit all citizens and ensure a decent standard of living for all.
After being elected as a local politician, you had to deal with a variety of issues, including political aggression directed at you and the migrant communities you represent. What are your strategies for dealing with this?
Before getting into politics, I was involved in a number of pro-immigration initiatives and projects, and I received a negative response. We’ve spoken out in the press and at public events about how to defend immigrants’ and Europeans’ rights. I got a lot of threatening messages and comments. As for my reactions, I’m always assertive and try to be open to different perspectives and create space for dialogue, even with people who are adamantly advocating for their beliefs; as long as they’re willing to engage in a dialogue, that is.
Of course, some people will simply yell, “Go home! Get out of here! What are you looking for in this country?” Many racist and xenophobic reactions are directed at Romanians, some of which are extremely vulgar and insulting. The majority of people, on the other hand, are usually eager to converse. And it all starts with a conversation when it comes to meaningful political and pro-migrant work.
Alexandra Bulat is a Cambridgeshire county councillor and a research assistant at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. She also works for the non—profit the3million, which advocates for the rights of EU citizens in the UK. She co-manages the Young Europeans Network.
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Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name. He focuses on international politics. He has worked for the Bulgarian weekly “Tema” until its closure in 2015. He founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. His articles and interviews have appeared in the Romanian magazines Decât o Revista, 22 and Q Magazine, in the Romanian cultural magazines of Vatra and Poesis, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac. At present, he makes a Ph.D. research on new Iranian literature before the Islamic Revolution at the University of Sofia. Starting from June 2020 he develops in English, Romanian, Bulgarian and other languages the blog “The Persian bridge of Friendship”, which deals with the Persian-speaking world.