As the deadline for lifting temporary restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the United Kingdom approaches, pressure from some MPs and sections of the popular press is mounting on British prime minister David Cameron to defy EU legislation and extend the restrictions beyond January 2014. The scare stories which accompany this debate are depressingly familiar and the rhetoric is typically hostile; 'gangsters' will 'flood' into Britain, apparently, as part of the 'Romanian invasion'.
So what of this impending Romanian invasion? The scaremongering sections of the British media claim that 'loopholes' in the current restrictions have already allowed Romanians to live and work in the UK with relative ease. In other words, the 'floodgates' (to reference another attempt to link migration with disaster and catastrophe) are already open. But the real invasion, we are told, is yet to come. In reality of course, many Romanians have already chosen to settle elsewhere - alongside their British counterparts in Spain, for example - and recent polls show that only a very small proportion of the Romanians who declare an intention to migrate in 2014 plan to go to the UK - they would much rather choose Germany, Italy or France.
Unsubstantiated fears of an invasion are matched by misconceptions about what immigrants do when they arrive. Far from draining state budgets by claiming benefits and using the health service, the vast majority of migrants of working age are employed in their country of residence. Moreover, those who migrate to the UK from Romania are not travelling far from home to fill up doctors' waiting rooms in a foreign country - most of them are young, healthy people who contribute to a social security system they may never even use.
The real threat in 2014 comes not from employed Romanian migrants who pay taxes and don't need the health service, but from the hatred stirred up by certain parts of the popular press which prefer to play on peoples' fears rather than encourage rational debate. Apparently, prejudice about foreigners helps sells newspapers, and reinforcing this prejudice is the modus operandi favoured by certain publications - some of which are, ironically, foreign-owned themselves.
The fuelling of xenophobic fear, spiced up with apocalyptic terminology that conflates migration with conflict and disaster, isn't just factually inaccurate, it is irresponsible and dangerous. It fosters a deeply divisive, and, at times, hysterical debate which risks handing a victory to the extremist political parties which embody such rhetoric in their policies. These parties defend their own narrow definitions of national identity and an intolerance of anything or anyone who doesn't fit into those conceptions, and a European parliament 'invaded' by such parties in 2014 could signal a return to a kind of politics in Europe which most of us would surely prefer to leave in the past. Romania's national day is 1 December. The most welcome congratulatory message from London would be a firm governmental appeal to British politicians and the press to cease xenophobic attacks and respect Romanians, as well as EU laws.