It’s been almost 10 years since Bulgaria joined the EU. Not much has changed since then though. Prices keep going up (recently municipal legislators in Sofia decided to almost double the price of a single on for public transportation to 80 euro cents), while salaries and pensions remain low. According to the NSI, the average wage in the capital remains around 660 euros, and in the poorest region it barely scrapes 330. Many Bulgarians feel disappointed and betrayed.
Joining the EU was their last hope for change, for a better quality of life and for progress. Instead, asides from some major infrastructural projects, Bulgarian's would tell you that they no longer believe in the EU dream set to transform their country into a prosperous nation. At least not that it’s going to happen any time soon.
When the crisis hit Europe in 2008 things got even worse. More and more Bulgarians decided to live, work, or study abroad. They hoped that in the West of the continent life would be easier. It wasn’t ideal, most of them would rather have stayed at home, but at least they were hopeful.
Contrary to the popular conviction that the majority of Eastern Europeans only move west in order to take advantage of the local social security systems, the main drive remains jobs and higher wages. The latest data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics shows that 87% of all Bulgarians and Romanians who came to the UK in 2014 came for work-related reasons. Around two-thirds arrived with a definite job to go to.
Most of my friends, and my friends’ friends, have chosen to start over in the UK along with over 60,000 other Bulgarians. Even though the country hasn’t exactly accepted them with open arms and great enthusiasm. It’s only been two years since London lifted the discriminative employment restrictions placing limits on the kind of jobs that EU2 (Bulgarian and Romanian) citizens could undertake, but that didn’t stop a colleague of mine who a few years ago, after working for a popular political magazine, took on a different career path as a butcher in England. Now, the prospects of a Brexit have put extra pressure on all those who have made compromise after compromise in search for a decent life.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU would affect the rights and conditions of Bulgarians and Romanians who wish to work in the country in the future. Inevitably, that would cause a major blow to the economies of the two Balkan countries.
Sofia faces a greater risk, as in recent years emigrants have become the country’s biggest foreign investor. In 2013, they poured 1.7 billion euros into the Bulgarian economy, compared to the 1.2 billion euros that came from foreign direct investments. Another major obstacle that could occur is that Bulgarian students’ planning to study in the UK would have to pay full tuition fees, with no access to student loans.
As for those who have already settled there, a friend of mine who has lived in London for almost 10 years now, says that he only recently began to realise the reality of the Brexit threat (or “madness” as he calls it) – economic uncertainty, job security… the list goes on.
It’s therefore not surprising that Bulgaria is more than interested in keeping the UK a part of the Single Market, with its freedom of movement. Furthermore, a recent Chattam House research paper claims that the UK boasts higher economic growth and lower unemployment than most major developed economies. It attracts the most foreign direct investment of any country in the EU, and is ranked among the most open places to do business in the developed world.
British economic weaknesses, such as a low growth in productivity, are self-inflicted. At the end of the day, the poorest member state, who didn’t benefit from the EU as much as it hoped, and whose citizens are more than willing to emigrate, is the same state that is calling on one of the most prosperous economies – thanks to the union itself – not to leave it. A little ironic... don’t you think?
This article is part of our East Side Stories project. Through fighting the most common clichés levelled at Southern and Eastern Europe, it aims to keep the European idea alive by raising awareness, creating dialogue, exchanging ideas and reporting beyond the mainstream media.