Rode to Joy: A Path to Cultural Immigration?

[19 May 2004]

By Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

According to some of the British press, the advent of a 25 nation Europe taking us down the road of economic and cultural integration is yet another flawed eutopia. The Polish pilots may have fought alongside the British during the Battle of Britain (or the Battle of France if you live on the continental side of the Channel), but now it is payback time as they look to flood the UK looking for British jobs. Here they come . . . any moment now . . . wait now . . . hold on just a bit longer . . . hello?

Scenario 1: panama hats; sipping gin and tonics in the shade on the terrace; quaffing a bottle of wine with a gastronomical meal of the local cuisine; conversations about what defines the perfect epicure; interacting with the locals and exchanging quaint little idiosyncrasies. Scenario 2: hordes of foreigners stealing jobs; tax-dodging asylum seekers using migrant workers as camouflage to illegally enter the country; schools imploding as they have to deal in more than one language; the health service unable to cope with the increased demand brought about by strange diseases; the whole country left up fraudster-creek without a cross-channel ferry.

The difference between the two? Easy, the first one is John Bull abroad, or rather Jonathan Bull on the continent; the second, Johnny Foreigner. John Bull spreads culture and civilisation; Johnny Foreigner, plagues and famine. When John Bull moves abroad he becomes an expat; JoJo l’Etranger, an immigrant.

Scenario 2 is, of course, the tabloid-fuelled protectionist perspective which seemed to gain the dominant in the British media as May Day saw the European Union increase its number of member states from 15 to 25. Fed during the preceding weeks by the so-called “immigration row”, during which the immigration minister Beverley Hughes resigned and the shadow home secretary David Davis claimed that Tony Blair’s Government had lost both “control of the immigration crisis and the trust of the British people”, it would appear that the populist media trend set by Britain’s best-selling newspaper The Sun (30 April 2004), has been to neatly bundle together migrant workers, asylum seekers and any other complex immigration issue you may wish to think of under such headlines as: “700,000. That’s how many Eastern Europeans came LAST year; Just one day to go”. But is there really a crisis? Let us begin by trying to understand what the discrepancies between the terms “expat” and “immigrant” may be.

No matter how often we hear certain words and how used we are to their myriad connotations in day-to-day headlining contexts, sometimes it is good to turn to a trusty dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it simply: an expatriate is “a person who lives outside their native country”, whereas an immigrant is “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”. Though for the moment the definition of “expatriate” seems rather innocuous, a rather interesting term crops up in the definition for “immigrant”: “comes to”. The Latin immigrare literally means to “move into”, so we could have had something along the lines of “moves permanently to” or even the more generic “goes to live”, but “comes to” suggests that for an immigrant, living permanently in a foreign country is to “reach eventually a condition or state of mind” (to quote the OED, again).

Avoiding the pedantics of close-reading, many of us would agree that “to reach eventually a condition of living in a foreign country” can indeed be seen to translate the arduous nature of a journey that requires us to up social and cultural roots and change country in order to better our survival chances. But though undoubtedly secondary in this particular instance, it is the idea of reaching a state of mind that one is “living in a foreign country”, which is really interesting. It seems quite obvious that immigrants realise this and are often made to realise this. However, would it necessarily be the case of an expat? And it is the diminutive that we are dealing with, here: viewed with affection and characterised as eccentric by his own kind; viewed with scepticism and scorn by the natives he has chosen to join.

There are two kinds of expat. Firstly, the one who goes native. The ultimate in post-tourism, to go native is not simply to see what is going on ‘behind the scenes’, but to be part of that hinterland, to perform the socio-cultural role of a local (one could ponder whether to live locally automatically qualifies you as a local). But to go native you must also sever all your ties with any former incarnation of your national or cultural self. Someone who goes native is quite literally someone who is a born again national. Is this possible or do you end up simply playing the local? Or perhaps it simply is a question of performance. But there is something eerie about it. Almost like the totalising stance of modernist integration personified by first generation immigrants who felt the need, or rather were made to feel the need to fit in. The BBC Asian comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me (the title referring to the hit comedy record from the 1960 film The Millionairess, in which Peter Sellers, “browned-up”, plays an Indian doctor) reflects this brilliantly by portraying the nouveau riche Kapoor family — in a desperate and always vain attempt to be fully English (what’s that?) they insisted their name be pronounced “Cooper”.

It reminds us of when Stanley Kowalski of A Streetcar Named Desire answers Blanche’s derogatory comment by vehemently stating “I am not a Pollack. People from Poland are Poles. They are not Pollacks. But what I am is one hundred percent American.” In attempt to weigh anchor it would appear that Stanley has gone native, but his added linguistic explanation would make it seem that his identity is not quite a secure one. The events that follow would seem to prove otherwise this he denies what the British-born, Anglo-Caribbean poet Fred D’Aguiar calls the “body echo”, the idea that our cultural pasts, for they are multiple, bubble up through our Selves to the present.

And the EU motto “united in diversity” reads like a banner for inclusion, if integration was to define the mobility policies of the Schengen agreement, then perhaps “united in homogeneity” would have been a better call. Hmmm. So, the gone-native viewed with scepticism: what are they playing at? And with scorn: are they taking the proverbial?

The second variety of expat is what we shall call the extrapat: the Irish person who suddenly discovers a passion for trad, the Brit who buys Marmite at, the French person who insists that only Gauloise will do. Almost as if the extrapat’s physical movement away from his native society is countered by mental displacement toward the national cultural caricature. For some this embodiment of a unified cultural fiction will define them and their activities in their new found home: the Irish, sorry “Oirish” theme pub (where’s my comedy beard?), the B&B that only advertises in Britain (where’s my cup of tea?), and ze marché français (where’s my stripy top?) . . . Whereas the gone-native seemed to obliterate the notion of diversity in the EU motto, here it is the aspect of unity that has vanished.

The extrapat viewed with scepticism: are they all like this? And viewed with scorn: why did you bother coming over here?

By now you will have spotted perhaps the most vital difference between the immigrant and the expat. The expat — and here we must insist on the diminutive form — tends to be middle-class, moving from, at worst, an okay life in order to better their lifestyle. The immigrant, however, feels the need to move country almost out of necessity. Not to better their lifestyle, but to give themselves a chance of having a better life. Immigrants, as they are understood in the popular press, tend to come from extremely poor working class backgrounds. So it would follow that most immigration toward Britain is fuelled by the prospect of work even if it is piecemeal; most British expats move abroad as a lifestyle choice. The immigrant would primarily appear to be an economic entity, the expat a cultural one.

Eight out of the 10 countries that joined the EU on 1st May are Eastern European — traditionally poorer as well as once forming part of the ex-Soviet block. Hence, perhaps the facile grouping together of asylum seekers and migrant workers into one uniform economic, and often cultural, group.

But before anyone accuses all this as being wishy-washy politically correct liberal pap, let us come back to the question of whether or not there really a crisis or whether the EU offers us a pan-national ideal? The immigration row in the UK, goaded on the one hand by a panic that “[n]early 40,000 people from the ten new EU countries will flock to Britain each year” (The Sun, 29 April 2004), namely to claim benefits — and in Tony Blair’s 27th April speech to the Confederation of British Industry on migration, he clearly states this won’t be possible — and on the other by the fear of an increased number of asylum seekers slipping through the net and taking over town centres and village greens. This, of course, led in the first instance to the closing of the Red Cross refugee camp in Sangatte, then to the arrival of British immigration officers on French soil to offer what would appear to be a sort of air-lock, and finally to the agreement that UK border controls should be extended as far as Brussels. This is more than simply a presence at the Belgian end of the Eurostar, it is also highly symbolic — Britain vetting the would-be capital of Europe itself.

In Blair’s speech the use of the term “migration” is 50% higher than that of “immigration”, and indeed the speech is known as the “migration speech”, rather than the “immigration speech”. This seems to mark a shift in rhetoric.

There are certain things we cannot get away from. Migration certainly means an increase in population. However, rather than this being a massive strain on the country’s economy, an increase in population results in an increase in the productive capacity of the economy. And surely this can only be a good thing, especially as it is the more intelligent and physically active that are the most mobile. We could try and apply basic economics to this way of thinking. Keynesian economics sees the necessity of an equilibrium between the interactions of aggregate demand (consumption, investment and government spending) and national income (what is available in the economy). The basic tenant of Keynesian economics is to control demand so as to achieve full employment. Migration should not affect this as the increase in population results in an increase in demand and a resultant increase in national income. Put simply: the greater the demand the more companies need to increase their output, the more wages that need to be paid, the more materials that need to be bought, and the more people receiving those wages and selling those materials will have to spend.

There may be two problems with this. Firstly, will the migrant workers be spending their money within their new country of residence? One could imagine that most of the money earned may be sent back to their families left behind in the poorer EU countries. But even if some is spent within the economy then the economic multiplier effect will still be positive. And if, indeed, money is being “sent back”, then this will have a positive economic multiplier there too (remember it’s “united in diversity”).

The second problem, one you can often hear, is that the present nationals should have more babies. Indeed, most western European countries have declining birth-rates. But babies won’t fill the half a million jobs vacant in the UK today — the EU outlaws child labour. A declining birth-rate also means, at least initially, a higher proportion of the old who also need to be paid for. One only need look at the dispute over the pension reform in France to understand that this is a serious problem. Thus migration, it would appear, is necessary to sustain economic growth. In addition, migration within an economic community — the European Economic Community was created when the Treaties of Rome were signed in 1957 and the Single Market was completed at the end of 1992 — is a useful tool for the stabilisation of that community.

Added to this there is also the issues of skill shortages that migrants may be able to fill. Though there may be some initial crowding at the lower end of the job market, the evidence seems to suggest that the half a million jobs left vacant in Britain are McJobs (low-skill, low-pay) that the indigenous population are not interested in. This was also noticeable in the Republic of Ireland where the Celtic tiger economy fed by the boom in IT has meant a massive increase in not only living standards but also expectancies, resulting in many menial jobs being left unfilled. But let us not forget the other end of the jobs market — qualified migrants also extend the skill base of the economy, the human capital, and improve productivity. This has led to some cries shifting from “they’re stealing our jobs!” to “they’re better at our jobs then we are!”.

The problem with the term “migrant” is it suggests the idea of the seasonal worker who is only passing through. It is, therefore, a useful term for Blair. He seems to be appeasing the popular press and the opinion of the scare-mongered population by implying that any sudden influx from the new EU member states will only be temporary: them helping us helping them (on their way?). But this would only result in a temporary economic boom, and surely Blair must be hoping for a sustained economic boom: the migrants really being immigrants, i.e., aiming to reach eventually a condition of living in a foreign country. Beyond the verbal parallax, migration per se may not necessarily be a good thing. Immigration on the other hand . . .

The issue of the so-called asylum seekers class of migrants remains both politically and culturally fraught. But for a country that has found the need to extend its borders into its EU neighbours, Britain came behind Austria, Sweden, Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium and France in the number of asylum applications including dependents in 2003. Asylum seekers made up 0.1% of the population in Britain in 2003, compared to twice as much in Ireland and almost four times as much in Austria. Contrary to what we may read in the tabloids, the “problem” isn’t a problem.

To be fair both to Blair and the more intelligent press in the UK, the general feeling is that the expansion can only strengthen the liberal economies of the member states. And putting aside certain fears, the chattering classes believe that it can only lead to greater cultural exchange. In fact, another British red-top, The Mirror, ran a story entitled “Exodus: Brits are swamping Europe” (30 April 2004), stating that 125,000 Brits leave for other EU countries a year, whereas only 89,000 went to Britain. This publication actually bothered to look at the figures from the National Office of Statistics, and reading it was a breath of fresh air.

Over 100,000 Brits have homes in France, 300,000 in Spain. A quarter of a million French people live in Britain. We can now imagine people buying homes is the sunnier climates of Malta and Cyprus to live out their days as a decadent. But the question is will anyone seek the dolce vita in Poland or Estonia? Surely for the exchanges to really work between the EU member states then we need to make sure that the Single Market has a market place where Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival can thrive. It may seem trite to say it, but perhaps what the new EU’s citizens need to exploit is the chance to be both a cultural immigrant and an economic expat.

And to think we haven’t even touched on the question of the European Constitutional Treaty yet, or for that matter, the subject of ID cards . . .

Raphaël is maître de conferences at the Sorbonne, Paris, where he lectures in English literature, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and Radio Journalism. Though born and bred in England, Raphaël has spent much of his adult life travelling between London, Edinburgh, Dublin and the Continent. After a short career as a rock band front man and music critic, he worked for several years as a radio presenter/producer and is currently piloting the Radio Sorbonne project. His radio work mainly focuses on the analysis of British current affairs with a cultural angle as well as issues dealing with the reception of popular music. He is known in radio circles as the "Dr of Pop". He completed his PhD in 2001 on the performances of postmodernity in contemporary British poetry and subsequently left his home in Britain to take up his post in Paris.

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