Way back in the 1990s, when it first became fashionable to talk about the wonders of globalisation, I attended a lecture in Delhi by a British expert who told us how the world was rapidly “shrinking” and we were all about to become citizens of a “global village” with a common stake in free trade and travel.
Some 20 years on, the world bears little resemblance to that optimistic scenario. No doubt, it has shrunk in the sense of faster communications and travel though even now the “breakfast-in-Delhi-and-lunch-in-New York” boast remains the stuff of airline brochures. But in many other ways, it has actually become more “distant.”
Protectionism has grown leading to bitter rows over trade, environment and immigration: think of the Doha round of talks and the first word that comes to mind is “stalled.” Likewise, the world climate change negotiations are perpetually “deadlocked.” And increasingly stringent immigration controls mean that for ordinary people who are not blessed with deep pockets to buy “fast-track” visas, it is becoming harder to travel beyond their own national borders. The ugly foreigner has become uglier with drawbridges going up everywhere to keep him out. “Gaining control over our borders” is the new mantra in western capitals.
Those who thought — and that includes pretty much all of us — that a more “connected” and interdependent world would necessarily lead to a fundamental shift in our attitude to other fellow denizens of the global village have been proved wrong. Instead, people have become more insular. Anyone who has closely followed the ill-tempered debate in the West on immigration and outsourcing would not have failed to notice a whiff of xenophobia.
Even progressive political leaders are speaking the language of protectionism, attacking businesses for hiring foreign workers instead of looking after the local “boys.” Britain’s former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously launched a campaign to give “British jobs to British people” offering incentives to companies to train native-born Britons for jobs that were being “taken away” by immigrants.
Across Europe, right-wing parties are enjoying a revival on the back of a new nationalism which sees all outsiders as a “threat” to European values and way of life. Immigrants are accused of “stealing” jobs and of being a “drain” on national resources.
In Greece, foreigners have been attacked by thugs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party allegedly with the covert support of security forces. In the parliamentary elections last June, the party came from nowhere to grab some seven per cent of the votes on an anti-immigrant agenda; and the support for it is reported to be growing. Almost every European country — Italy, France, Spain, Austria, Denmark — has its own domestic equivalent of Golden Dawn terrorising immigrants and especially targeting Muslims.
In France, Socialists may have won the presidency because of widespread disillusionment with Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right government but immigration remains high on the French political agenda. The issue dominated last year’s presidential campaign and the number of people who voted for Marine Le Pen, candidate for the poisonous far-right National Front, was staggering. She polled more than six million votes (17.9 per cent) in the first round finishing third behind François Hollande and Mr. Sarkozy.
A few months later, French voters went on to elect her 22-year-old niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen as a member of Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of parliament, making her the youngest MP in modern French history. The fact that she ran on a shamelessly jingoistic agenda and still won represents a triumph for the French right which will encourage it to spread its tentacles deeper.
In an interview with The Guardian , Ms Le Pen warned immigrants that they should know their place in society. “Integration is no longer possible. When you’re the single French person in the middle of 10 Tunisians, the majority will impose their way of life on the minority,” she said.
Meanwhile, Britain is embroiled in a diplomatic row with Romania and Bulgaria over its plans to extend restrictions on their citizens working in Britain. Currently, only highly-skilled Romanians and Bulgarians can work in the U.K., but from next January they will have an automatic right to come and settle there as their countries become full members of the European Union.
However, the British government sees it as a bad idea to allow a new “wave” of immigrants to come in at a time when it is desperately trying to reduce immigration. There is much scare-mongering how “hundreds of thousands” of desperate Bulgarians and Romanians will land up in Britain putting “intolerable” pressure on jobs, housing and public services. It is claimed that some 400,000 Poles “flocked” to Britain when it opened its borders to Poland in 2004.
Bizarrely, the government is reportedly planning an unremittingly negative campaign to discourage prospective Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants from coming to the U.K. by portraying it as a country where it always rains, jobs are scarce and public services are bursting at the seams. One minister said that a negative campaign would “correct the impression that the streets here are paved with gold.”
Not surprisingly, the Romanian and Bulgarian governments have hit back and warned that any attempt to restrict the rights of their citizens on the basis of “scare stories” which have no basis in fact would be in breach of EU rules. They have sought assurances from the British government that there would be no dilution of their citizens’ rights.
“These rights come from European citizenship status. Once you are in a space, you cannot have limited rights. If you start limiting health, why not limit other public services? That will affect the freedom of movement of people in the EU space,” said Cristian David, the Minister for Romanians Abroad.
Ordinary Bulgarians and Romanians have accused Britain of “racism.” My Romanian cleaner, Maria Olteanu, says she feels “humiliated” by the way some people react when she tells them that she is from Romania. “They think all Romanians are gypsies and that we are all here to have a free meal. We work hard and like everyone else, we pay taxes,” she says.
Maria is a trained car mechanic but under current rules, she doesn’t qualify for a job permit. She was hoping that she would be able to get one next year, but is now worried that she may have to wait longer if the restrictions are extended.
A young Bulgarian woman Ralitsa Behar has apparently made quite a splash after she wrote a long letter on behalf of all Bulgarians protesting against “the untrue and somewhat insulting” remarks about her country. She “invited” Britain’s Bulgaria-baiters to visit her country “as a guest of me and my family, so that we can explain to you how much our country has changed over the past 20 years.”
There have been anti-U.K. protests in Bucharest and Sofia with calls for boycott of British products. In Sofia, hundreds of activists of Bulgaria’s ultra-right Ataka group — dressed in military uniform — laid a siege to the British embassy demanding an apology from London. They threatened to retaliate against British interests if the U.K. went ahead with its plans.
“British people coming to buy property in Bulgaria should be given a hostile reception. Russians should be given visa exemption for Bulgaria but, in turn, Sofia should require visa applications from British people,” demanded its leader Volen Siderov.
Analysts have warned of a “year of heated political exchange” ahead with the issue likely to go right up to the European Commission if Britain doesn’t move quickly to defuse the row.
Britain is also involved in a running battle with non-European countries, including India, over its new stringent visa regime for workers and students from outside the EU. The controversy is too well known to bear repetition but it is yet another illustration of the chasm between the idea of a happy-clappy global village and the reality on the ground.
Forget Europe, things are not exactly rosy in our own backyard with India and Pakistan engaged in their little visa wars. Perhaps not many know that if a British-Pakistani with a dual citizenship applies for an Indian visa, the Indian authorities recognise only his Pakistani passport leading to lengthy inquiries and delays that a British citizen does not have to endure. India, of course, doesn’t grant dual citizenship — so Pakistan is denied the pleasure of returning the compliment. But now that we have OCI (overseas citizenship of India), I think I’ll apply for a Pakistani visa just for the heck of it — to see how it goes.
With even progressive leaders talking about protectionism and anti-immigration, and right-wing parties enjoying a revival, the world has actually become more parochial