Thursday, 20 November 2014

Welcome to Reckless Britain: First they came for the Polish plumbers...

(This little vignette was inspired by Mark Reckless MP, potato-head turncoat and world's most unlikely muse..)

First they came for the Polish plumbers. Then they came for the Romanian nurses, the Portuguese toiling in food processing and the young Italian baristas. 

Off they went, group by group, back on those coaches and trains and planes (the French IT engineers were very sniffy about the ferries, the stuck-up frogs). By the time they were carting off middle-aged Mediterranean media & communications professionals you'd think I'd have seen the writing on the wall. 

Sure, I'd been wearing the regulation armband with the 12 yellow stars on a blue background. They make some really stylish ones these days and it seemed like a small ask, all things considered, a form of courtesy really, that I should make it possible for my fellow workers/commuters/shoppers/voters/audience members  in the busy metropolis to identify me as an LEF (Legal European Foreigner). 

Some natives have allergies and stuff - we bring them out in boils, bouts of hysteria, projectile vomiting, head swivelling, the lot, and they have a right to know, surely, a right to avoid us. It is not their fault - it's nobody's fault. It's just one of those things.

The armband was fine, really. A small sacrifice, if you can even call it that, when we were generously supplied one for free.  Some of the usual suspects moaned about a link between the armband wearing and an increase of instances of LEFs being spat at in the street. Look, it's just saliva people! A bit of saliva has never killed anyone, outside of Ebola infected zones. 

My British husband was ever so reassuring: you are married to me, he would say, you're practically a Brit. He was ever so patient, waiting for me at passport control at the return from every holiday, while I was deloused and power-showered at the end of long, long, line of Returning LEFs. 

That one single unpleasant incident (an unnecessary vigorous strip-search followed by 48 hours detention ) when I forgot the folder with all my documentation was soon forgotten. My fault entirely. It is quite ridiculous in this day and age to still think you can hop off on holiday with just your passport, for heaven's sake! What next? Inter-railing with a library card, cruising with a bus pass? 

Now my LEF Papers (birth certificate, NHS registration number, Residency Permit, National Insurance Registration, mortgage agreement, Rabies Certificate and last but not least my -laminated- job contract) are neatly packed and ready to go anywhere with me. And it seemed like a hopeful sign when the Documentation Zone Threshold was extended to journeys longer than 20 miles: the commute into work became a lot less tiresome without the folder, let me tell you. 

So you see, I played by the rules, was understanding and patient. But fundamentally I didn't think they would ever come for me because - how shall I put it without blushing - I simply did not know I was an EU migrant. I thought I was an EU citizen. Not as good as a UK citizen, I grant you, but a benign subspecies which could operate on these shores, pay taxes, purchase property, work hard, marry a native whilst still not breaking any laws.

I did not, in all these years, saw myself as someone who had migrated to this country: this was the country I had chosen to live and work in out of 27 others that constituted the bit of the 21st century world that was my oyster. I never realised my taxes were such a bother to collect, or that my speaking Italian on my mobile on crowded buses had traumatised so many, or that my annual GP appointment had put such a horrible strain on the NHS in my area. 

So at the flick of the Brexit Switch, when LEFs where turned into EFs - European Foreigners - I was suddenly illegal without ever having fully realised that I was one of those nasty, cheating, grasping, oxygen-sucking, job-stealing, benefit-cheating, space-taking immigrants at all. 

I'm glad they got me. I'm glad they sent me back. Britain is no doubt safer and more prosperous without the likes of me. And I have found a new calling and a very good living in my old country surprisingly quickly. 

I'm with the special de-Britting task force that's liberating Tuscany from the 20-year old infestation of British semi-retireds. We're confiscating second homes and arresting on sight any grown-up walking about in a football strip. The Brits are bad at carrying their paperwork but you can always spot them a mile off from their horrendous clothes.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Europe's Space Odyssey shows what EU cooperation can achieve

Will this week's comet landing triumph shift people's perceptions of Europe away from the tired clichés of bent bananas, faceless bureaucrats and benefit-thirsty migrants?
The coverage of the Rosetta mission has tended to focus on the astonishing complexity of the mission, and rightly so. It took ten years of research and preparations for the European Space Agency to launch the Rosetta satellite in 2004. It has taken this unmanned craft a further 10 years, and four billion miles, to reach the comet and send a lander, a little fellow the size of a fridge going by the name of Philae, successfully down on what is an irregularly-shaped, 2.5mile-long rock travelling at a speed of 40,000mph, after a couple of awkward bounces.
What all the superlatives used about this achievement don't make clear is just howimprobable if not impossible this mission would have been without the existence of a EU-funded European Space coordinating the work and sharing research with scientists in several countries operating in different languages.
To deal with the budget first of all, ESA received £3.38billion in 2013, paid for in large part by the EU and its member states, with smaller contributions coming from Canada, Switzerland, Norway, and ESA candidate states. The budget for the Rosetta project was £1.1billion.
Not only is the money shared but so too the work - the ESA has centres all around the continent serving different purposes: astronauts are trained in Cologne; Mission Control is in Darmstadt; Research and Technology is based in Noordwijk; Earth Observations in Frascati, and Space Astronomy in Villanueva de la Cañada. All of these collective resources combine to create a co-operative organisation which is forward-looking, ambitious, and fundamentally European.
Researchers from Open University's Centre for Physical and Environmental Sciences worked with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire to develop Ptolemy, an instrument which will make in situ isotopic measurements, since you ask - one of the many tools the Philae lander will use to analyse the comet. And OU researchers also had a hand in the development of MUPUS (Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science) which was led by a consortium of European scientists from Münster, Berlin, Warsaw, and Graz.
None of the nations involved could have hoped to achieve this goal single-handedly. None would even have attempted it. None of the international experts who came together would ever had a chance to be part of something this complex, enriching, fascinating and, yes, just plain exciting, without the European Space Agency. It is through the ESA that the UK Space agency gets a place at the table, or on the spacecraft, through the instruments developed by UK scientists, funded by taxpayers in Bristol, Boulogne and Berlin.
It's cost us 10 years, millions of pounds and man-hours but the result of this amazing feat of European co-operation, fundraising, co-ordination and joint research is truly priceless.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Take this from this EU migrant: we more than pay our way and this country would be much poorer without us

When I first arrived in Britain, to complete my education at a Scottish university, I thought I would only stay three years. After all, mutual recognition of degrees among the (then) 12 European Union member states meant my qualification would be recognised back home in Italy. But then I found a job, and after that a better job, in the field I wanted to work in. Eventually I bought a place and married a Briton.
Twenty-five years later here I still am, still enjoying living in this country except for one thing. While I used to think of myself as an EU citizen, now, because of the increasingly hostile debate about the EU in this country, I discover I am in fact an immigrant - a word dripping with all sorts of negative connotations in an increasingly toxic public debate dominated and fanned by Ukip's agenda.
So are my fellow EU immigrants and I such a huge burden to this country? Today the news is dominated by a new, very serious piece of research by UCL on the fiscal effects of migration into the UK from 1995v to 2011. The report's findings are stark and unequivocal: EU migrants have consistently paid more into the system than they have taken out. Their net contribution for the past 10 years - that is the taxes they paid minus the services and benefits they received - nears £5billion.
That is no small change, 'back-of-the-sofa'-type sum. It is serious money contributing to keep British citizens in the style of welfare and service provision to which they are accustomed. If all EU immigrants left tomorrow their departure would leave a gaping hole in Britain's public finances, to say nothing of course of shrinking productivity, businesses put out of work by skills shortages at one end of the spectrum and seasonal produce left rotting in the fields at the other end.
But the UCL publication is just the latest in a long list of authoritative reports - be it from the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the Office for Budget Responsibility - to state that EU migrants are net contributors and not the scroungers and benefit cheats they are often depicted to be.
Nor, contrary to popular belief, are we all scrabbling on the minimum wage, unfairly competing with natives for unskilled jobs. The NHS, one of the biggest employers in the world, relies hugely on EU migration: 11 per cent of all staff in the NHS are not UK nationals, a figure that rises to 26 per cent when looking at doctors only. Among the top 10 exporters of NHS staff, five are EU countries: Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Germany.
EU migrants are generally young (85 per cent of migrants from Eastern Europe are under 40), well-educated (more EU migrants than Britons have university degrees), and serious about their job-seeking efforts (EU migrants are 45 per cent less likely to claim benefits than Britons).
And not all are here to work, of course. In 2012-13, 125,000 students from across the EU followed in my footsteps and came to the UK to study. This is good for UK universities, which make a lot of money from EU students, and good for society at large, as many with desirable skills and knowledge will go on to make a significant contribution in this country in fields like science and technology, boosting innovation.
Consider also that EU freedom of movement is a two-way street: UK citizens also travel to other EU countries to study, to work, and to retire. Thousands of UK students benefit every year from the Erasmus programme, which offers grants to study elsewhere in the EU. 14,572 Brits took advantage of that in 2013/14. More generally, according to government estimates nearly two million Brits live elsewhere in the EU, which is nearly the same amount of EU migrants living in Britain.
After months of handwringing by all political sides -and plenty of policy-based evidence making -what we desperately need now is some leadership from the mainstream parties on the issues that really make people feel worried and insecure, and make vulnerable to UKIP's base, xenophobic rhetoric.
They should deal with the real problems caused by uneven distribution of resources and services being under pressure. It's called planning and it tends to be way more effective than running around like headless chicken, latest polls in one hand, megaphone in the other.
They should come down hard on gang masters who exploit low-paid workers, whether native or immigrant. We can and should keep better track of people's movements and therefore adequately prepare so there is not an undue pressure on public services. Exit controls or registration requirements exist in other countries and could be used in Britain too. Benefit entitlements can be tightened and deliberate abuse - minuscule though it is by all accounts - can be stamped down on.
What our leaders should not do is engage with Ukip in a race to the bottom, offering potentially catastrophic solutions to a largely imaginary problem, while the sources of the real hardship, insecurity and unfairness remain largely untackled.