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Britain braces for influx of Eastern Europeans

AFP-JIJI

Coils of Polish sausages glisten on shop counters and vodka bottles line the shelves. In this corner of the English countryside, much of the chatter is in Latvian or Lithuanian.

Welcome to Boston, the most Eastern European town in Britain.

Census data show that more than one-tenth of the residents of this sleepy outpost in rural Lincolnshire, in eastern England, are immigrants from the 10 former communist countries that joined the European Union in the 2000s.

With its streets dotted by Polish cafes and Baltic food shops, Boston is almost unrecognizable from the town that listed 249 Germans as its biggest foreign population in Britain’s 2001 census.

But now Britain is expecting a second wave of immigration from Eastern Europe next year — this time from Bulgaria and Romania, as the EU lifts restrictions on their 29 million citizens’ access to the bloc’s labor markets.

There are few who view this prospect with more trepidation than the English residents of Boston, where one elementary school already has signs on its gates in five languages.

“We’ll be foreigners in our own town soon,” said Joan, a retired office worker.

“I’ve got neighbors from Eastern Europe and they couldn’t be nicer. But we just don’t want any more of them.”

Her English neighbors have a litany of complaints against the town’s newer inhabitants, from claims that they put a strain on public services to moans that they frequently drive on the wrong side of the road.

Even among the town’s existing Eastern European community, there are mixed feelings about the new arrivals.

“I like it here, and people are nice,” said Barbara Sieczkowska, owner of Basia’s Pantry, which sells imported Polish food.

“But there are too many Eastern Europeans here now. There must be 20 shops in Boston selling the same kind of food as mine. It’s bad for business.”

Boston is an extreme example of how free movement of labor within the 27-nation EU has changed the face of Britain over the last decade.

When the so-called A8 countries — Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia and the Czech Republic — joined the EU in 2004, Britain was one of just three states to immediately open its labor market to them.

As the third-biggest economy in Europe, it quickly became a major destination for workers from poor postcommunist states.

Today, Britain’s biggest ethnic communities remain the 7 percent of the population who are of South Asian origin and the 3 percent who are black, a legacy of the country’s colonial past.

But the 62-million-strong population also includes a million Eastern Europeans. Polish is now Britain’s most widely spoken language after English.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Britain joined several other states in restricting the new members’ access to their labor markets until January 2014.

But with less than a year to go, rightwing British newspapers are whipping up fears that “floods of beggars” will sweep in from Bulgaria and Romania, two of the EU’s poorest members.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories, who have tried for years to shake off their image as Britain’s “nasty party,” are toughening their immigration stance.

Recently Cameron said Britain is reviewing immigrants’ access to the welfare system to ensure that the country is not a “soft touch.”

Romania’s ambassador to London, Ion Jinga, warned that the inflammatory rhetoric could lead to discrimination and even physical attacks against Romanians living in Britain.

The British government refuses to give a prediction for the size of the Romanian and Bulgarian influx, but newspapers claim it could be hundreds of thousands of people.

“There is simply no reliable way of knowing how many people are going to arrive,” said Scott Blinder, of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.

There are reasons to expect either a huge influx or a relatively small one, he explained.

As Spain and Italy are home to the biggest Romanian and Bulgarian expat communities, some expect emigrants to head there — or to other countries lifting the restrictions next year, including France or Germany.

But Britain is weathering the economic crisis better than Spain or Italy, and campaign group Migration Watch U.K. claims Romanians and Bulgarians could be up to nine times better off if they moved there instead of staying at home.