Have pity on poor Albania. This tiny west Balkan nation with a population the size of Greater Manchester — 2.8 million — is the new bogeyman for politicians, much of the press, and every pub wiseacre.
It is not just Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage. Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, whose Vietnamese wife worked as an interpreter for the Home Office at a time when Vietnamese cannabis farmers in Britain were being detained, has tweeted: “Albanians and others fleeing safe countries need to be returned forthwith.”
It is a fair point. Other European countries seem to be able to process undocumented arrivals faster than the UK manages. As an MP I used to be in despair in the mid-1990s that it took up to two years to process applications to stay in the UK – then mainly from Asian Commonwealth countries.
Sometimes we turn a blind eye. The end of communism in 1990 saw the arrival of hundreds of thousands East European, notably Poles, who came to Britain on tourist visas and promptly disappeared into the informal (or black) cash-in-hand labour market.
The Polish diaspora in Britain helped the illegal over-stayers find accommodation. Of course many Brits who would be horrified at the idea they were aiding and abetting illegal immigrants welcomed the arrival of hard working East European handymen, electricians, plumbers. British landlords were happy to make money renting rooms or flats to the post-Cold War generation of East European immigrants, some of whom preferred to stay under the radar.
So why have Albanians become objects of such hate? In Greece, there are about 1 million Albanian immigrants, roughly half there legally and half working without documentation. They do the agricultural or construction work that modern fully-educated Greeks prefer to avoid. The Albanians are carers of elderly Greeks with dementia, who are thereby enabled live in their own homes. They are the waiters and gyros chefs serving Europe’s best fast food to British tourists who don’t know the difference between an Albanian and a Greek.
The Albanian refugees who fled Milosovic’s genocidal attacks, including the Serb death squads killing Kosovan Albanian villagers in 1998 and 1999, came to Britain. They opened car washes which were welcomed in every city and town. Sturdy young Brits could have opened car washes, but they preferred to let Albanians do the cold wet work and in exchange we got nice clean cars, without the scratches caused by going through giant rollers in car washes of old.
In 2017, President Macron of France launched his European policy and told an audience in the Sorbonne: “The EU will have to open itself up to the Balkan countries, because our EU is still attractive, and its aura is a key factor of peace and stability on our continent.” Macron was perhaps unwittingly copying Margaret Thatcher, who in the 1980s was an advocate for opening the European Community to the post-dictatorship and then still very poor nations of Portugal, Greece and Spain.
Thatcher was challenged in the Commons by the new rising star of Labour, Jack Straw, at a time when Labour’s policy was withdrawal from Europe — Brexit avant la lettre. Mrs Thatcher slapped him down, saying that supporting these poor countries — many of whose citizens had emigrated to richer north Europe — would provide an opportunity for British investment and ensure their citizens would stay at home as economic opportunities opened up.
She was right and Macron was right in 2017 to open up a European perspective to Albania. But he has not delivered. Today Albania is parked in the so-called European Political Community, along with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and other countries deemed to be outside the European Union single market and its wider labour market. These include the UK.
It is not Macron’s fault. Angela Merkel baulked at taking on German public opinion by letting the quarrelling, divided West Balkans join Europe. As anti-Muslim prejudice rose in Europe the fact that the 2.8 million Albanians are nominally Muslim frightened Continental politicians, who faced pressure from anti-Muslim rightists like Marine Le Pen or the Swedish Democrats.
Little matter that Albanian wine is on sale in Waitrose, alcohol is served everywhere in Albania and young women in western clothes fill the streets of Tirana. Albanian footballers play in every major league and Dua Lipa, born in England to Albanian parents, is one of Europe’s biggest rock stars.
Boris Johnson was once a strong advocate for bringing in West Balkan nations to the EU, but Brexit has killed all UK influence over EU policy. If by now Albania was on the slipway to the EU, like Croatia in 2013 or Slovenia in 2004, or in the 1980s Portugal and Greece, there would be no need for any young Albanian man to seek work in Britain.
As for the illegal drugs trade: if cannabis were to be legalised, as Germany is proposing, British cannabis farmers would set up shop legally. Cocaine is a different matter, but it is a fashionable recreational drug for hedge fund managers, investment bankers, rising Tory stars of the Cameron and Osborne era, as well as for BBC journalists, political consultants, the fashion and entertainment industry. It seems unfair to demonise Albanians for providing a drug that many elite circles in fashionable quarters of English cities so eagerly consume.
The great Albanian scare will calm down. There are lots of measures the Government could take to speed up processing of asylum claims, send home swiftly arrivals from countries without proper papers or who overstay a tourist or family re-union visa — though the latter are more likely to be from South Asia or East Africa.
But in the meantime we can all enjoy the spectacle of the British political and media class in one of its periodic fits of moralising about a new set of foreigners turning up on our shores. Albania-bashing has indeed become our new national sport.
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