Communication Currents

Intra-European Union Migration: More Rights for Migrant EU Citizens?

August 1, 2014
Intercultural Communication

When Malta and Cyprus were admitted into the European Union (EU) as new member states from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004, their citizens gained rights to freedom of movement and employment in the EU states. Poland, the largest of the entering countries, had the highest unemployment rate at around 20 percent, pushing the largest wave of post-accession migration to the United Kingdom (UK).  Did the EU supranational citizenship and open borders mean that UK newspapers represented migrants from the “other” Europe in inclusive terms as fellow EU citizens having equal rights?

Immigrants are typically represented in the media as an economic burden, disease, infestation, pollution, or flood, that is, a threat to the nation. Such representations tell us not only who belongs to the nation and who does not, but also how membership in larger entities such as the EU and relations among member states are publicly understood. The EU promised social inclusion, equality, and rights enabling not only free movement of goods and capital but also people. The EU is thus a unique transnational entity with a new form of citizenship. We analyzed representations of Polish migrants in UK newspapers to understand how this new form of transnational citizenship and the process of EU integration were represented to their readers.        

We examined articles published in two tabloids, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror, and two “broadsheets,” The Times andThe GuardianBritish tabloids offer both sensational coverage and serious news. Broadsheets publish in-depth coverage and analysis. British newspapers differentiate themselves more strongly along partisan lines than those in the United States. 

The broadsheets predominantly represented Poles as an economic asset while the tabloids portrayed them as both an asset and a problem. Poles were described as hardworking on cultural principle, highly skilled but willing to take any job, docile and cheap laborers. The Times gushed that “the Polish plumber has become a much loved feature of British life” and called Poles “the immigrants from heaven.” Papers praised cheap Polish workers for enabling budget home remodels as well as fueling the service and agricultural industries. Moreover, they presented Polish workers as mobile and temporary, “free” to leave and move within the EU after earning some money. Instead of burdening the state, this made them an asset to the national economy because it provided workers when needed who then moved elsewhere when jobs dried up. For this reason, Poles were preferable to immigrants from outside of the EU. But the tabloid The Daily Mail was also highly critical of Polish migrants as an economic problem because they took advantage of state welfare and undercut wages for British workers. It did not, however, scrutinize companies employing them or the industry structures, and rather just blamed Poles for accepting low wages.

Poles also were praised for being flexible and taking jobs well below their qualifications, for example, an economics graduate “happily” peeling shrimp. Such descriptions justified low pay as freely chosen on the open market because of the weak Polish economy. This explanation obscured for the readers the effects of the post-communist transition to a free market economy in Poland, which often involved fraudulent privatization of state-run industries, liberalization of trade, and deregulation of the labor market that benefited Western European countries.

The papers said very little about widespread abuses in low-paid jobs or about companies shifting to temporary and “off the books” workers, practices that increased precarious employment conditions for all workers. Instead, these migrants, free to move across borders and thus “legal,” were represented as benefiting from being paid less than British workers for construction and service jobs where they excelled by virtue of their ethnicity. Poles were collectively and somewhat affectionately described as “Polish plumbers,” implying that skilled low-pay jobs were their ethnic specialization. But their cultural difference also made them a threat to the nation as expressed through alarmist metaphors such as “flood” and “invasion.”

Even when the broadsheets ostensibly supported migration, they presented low wages and not equality as its chief benefit. Studies showed that Polish workers received little return for their education, instead finding themselves concentrated in low-paid jobs. The open borders did not offer protection from loss of professional status or abuses in agricultural and service industries. The papers did not challenge this, but instead justified a deficit of citizenship rights. 

The papers juxtaposed the hardworking Polish migrant workers with descriptions of British workers as tardy, unreliable, unskilled, and lazy—but more expensive. British workers were presented as useless human capital because they did not want to acquire skills and work long hours for low pay and could be easily replaced with Polish workers. The Times and The Daily Mail vilified and discredited the labor unions and praised the EU open market for delivering human capital on demand. The papers, even The Daily Mail, which blamed Poles for undercutting British wages, justified insecure working conditions for both migrant and domestic workers.

Scholars and activists had hoped that open movement of humans, not just of capital and goods, would not only resolve this contradiction in the open market, but also promote more rights for migrant workers. However, the UK newspapers represented the EU as a free market delivering cheap workers rather than an institution securing equal rights. The findings demonstrate that open borders and free movement do not by themselves lead to economic justice for workers. The representation undercut the progressive potential of free movement and the EU citizenship by editing out issues of equality, justice, and the prerogative to have rights. Poles, who had always considered themselves European and who have been migrating to Western Europe since the collapse of the communist bloc, were ethnicized by multicultural and national threat discourses as second-class EU citizens. The negative representation of British workers was a surprising finding given the dominant national frame and the growing economy at the time. The papers favored mobility and flexibility of labor across the EU and justified insecure conditions for both British and Polish workers.

EU migration involves multidimensional EU-wide economic, cultural, and political processes that increase integration. However, the newspapers represented migration as a national process as if the EU were a government office managing migration and thus, the papers symbolically reconstituted borders. They limited insight into labor structures in the EU and the impact of its enlargement on new member states’ economies. The freedom movement was represented not as a fundamental human right but rather regulation, and the EU was legitimated to the public as a regulatory rather than rights-granting institution.

About the author (s)

Jolanta A. Drzewiecka

Washington State University

Associate Professor