Vienna – Romanian migrants living and working abroad, like myself, have been explicitly cast, alongside our Bulgarian counterparts, as social pariahs who “leech” on the social welfare state of countries like Britain, despite all data showing that we represent a net gain for the local economy.
In spite of the negative branding most Romanians nonetheless view the EU as positive, for different reasons depending on social class. The well-educated middle class sees the EU as a positive force which combats local government corruption and guarantees the implementation of technocratic neoliberal policies that appear beneficial to them. For them the EU should be just an economic and legal project, not a social one. The increasingly precarious class of the working-poor, which is concentrated in the low-wage but labour-intensive sectors of the economy, view the free movement of the labor force as an opportunity to escape poverty. They do not, however see the associated exploitation. The neoliberal state generally thinks in the neo-utilitarianist “push and pull” logic where workforce migration has the added value of acting as a vent for the already cut-down welfare state, preventing it from imploding. Moreover, the EU anti-corruption discourse is used by local politicians as a legitimiser for more austerity measures.
That being said, a Brexit would have serious and direct consequences for Romania, not only for the 150,000 Romanians living in Britain but also for the Romanian economy for which the UK is one of the largest export destinations. While I don’t think that the economic problem would take hold in the long term, since economic treaties will be signed with expediency, I see the main implication of a Brexit on the parallel welfare system, which has been established following the breakdown of the local social system, in which migrant workers support their families back home through their comparatively higher salaries in the UK.
This system would partly break down as the majority of the lower-paid Romanian workers in the UK would not get employment permits following a Brexit. I think that a Brexit would also fuel right-wing populist parties in other EU countries to push for their own referenda, potentially leading to the breakup of the beneficial, although very problematic, European project. If the EU does not become more democratic and social, the voices that push for a return to nationalist borders and protectionism will eventually win and shift the whole political discourse in Europe to the right.