Denis MacShane / Nov 2022
Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania. Photo: Shutterstock
Has the “A” word - Albanian - replaced the “P” word - Pakistani or “Paki” - as Britain’s easily aroused xenophobia moves from the targets of the Enoch Powell generation of anti-immigrant hate focused on incomers from Pakistan, India, Muslims and Hindus from East Africa including the parents of the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary, Suella Braverman to today’s Albanians?
Do we have to wait a generation in Britain before the children of Albanians become Tory ministers like the many ethnic stars of cabinets in recent years? Then maybe today’s almost racist hate against Albania will subside.
It has aroused the ire of Edi Rama, Albania’s French educated, fluent English speaking, social democratic prime minister who has won three consecutive elections against fierce rightist opposition. He wants to keep all his citizens at home but many with family or friends in the UK are tempted by the allure of work in a Britain that sent 500,000 European workers home as Tories whipped up dislike of partnership including labour market partnerships with nations on the continents.
This tiny west Balkan nation with a population the size of Greater Manchester is the new bogeyman for politicians, much of the press, and every pub wiseacre in England.
Other European countries seem to be able to process undocumented arrivals faster than the UK manages. As an MP I was in despair in the middle 1990s at the up to 2 years it took to process applications to stay in the UK – then mainly from Commonwealth countries.
An obvious answer is to process applications for entry into the UK in France and join with the French in sending back any migrants not fleeing like the majority of those seeking entry into the UK from the horrors of Iran, or the failed states of Iraq, Libya and Syria after British promoted interventions in those nations.
But what is logical in the Cartesian nation of France is rejected by Tory ministers who seem to need recurrent immigration scare stories to garner votes.
So why have Albanians become a figure 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 can 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. They are accepted in Greece just as Irish workers were welcomed in Britain after 1945.
In 2017, President Macron of France 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 copying Margaret Thatcher who in the 1980s was a strong advocate for opening the European Community to the post-dictatorship and very poor nations of Portugal, Greece and Spain.
Mrs Thatcher told MPs 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 faced opposition from Angela Merkel who 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 Albanians are nominally Muslim frightened continental politicians who faced pressure from anti-Muslim rightists like Marine Le Pen or Giorgia Meloni or the Swedish Democrats.
Little matter that Albanian wine is on sale in middle class stores like Waitrose and alcohol is served everywhere in Albania and young women in western clothes fill the streets of Tirana. Albanian soccer starts play in every major league and Dua Lipa is Europe’s number one rock star.
Boris Johnson was a strong advocate for bringing in West Balkan nations into the EU but Brexit has killed all UK influence over EU policy. Accession talks opened in the summer but can last years. If by now Albania was on the slipway to the EU like Croatia or Slovenia earlier this century or as in the 1980s Portugal and Greece there would be no need for any young Albanian man to seek work in Britain. If cannabis was decriminalised as Germany is proposing British cannabis farmers would set up shop legally.
The last Labour government passed laws making it a crime to pay for sex with a trafficked young woman. The British police and Crown Prosecution Service have sabotaged this measure by refusing to prosecute with vigour and maximum publicity British men paying for sex with teenagers.
Albanian cannabis growers only exist because of Britain prohibitionist law on soft drugs. Albanian sex slave traffickers become rich because British men think if they put down a few pounds they can do what they like to a young woman’s body.
Edi Rama pointed out on the BBC that accusations Albanians were “invading southern England” as Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, told the Commons were part of current Tory desperation as they hunt for any votes to stave off defeat and loss of power.
Rama is a friend of Britain. But the UK’s ability to lose friends and make enemies seems to grow with each passing year isolated from Europe.