Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Helsinki vs. Slough

Listening to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 as I was leaving the house this morning, I caught a report on how Slough (pronounced to rhyme with "cow") Borough Council is having its services stretched to breaking point by the recent arrival of large numbers of legal immigrants from the new EU members - the report mentioned in particular Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Whilst obviously problematic for Slough, I can’t help feeling a certain amount of Schadenfreude. Finland, like many of the other EU-15 (the older EU members) introduced restrictions on the free movement of labour from the new EU members when they joined two years ago – the so-called “transition periods”. Germany led this move, being worried that it would be deluged by Poles willing to work for lower wages. As someone who has made full use of my right to move from home country to another EU country to work and live, I feel this was fundamentally wrong: telling my fellow EU citizens from Eastern Europe that they were actually second-class citizens. Due to this I was relatively proud that the UK was one of the few old member who immediately opened their doors to migrant workers from the new member-states (the others that I know for sure were Ireland and Sweden – apologies if I have forgotten anyone else).

The fear in Finland was that Estonians, who speak a not dissimilar language and many of whom “know” Finland to some degree, would flock to the country and putting pressure on an already tight employment situation. At the time I argued that at least with young people they would be far more attracted to the bright lights of the big cities of metropolitan Europe – be that London, Berlin or Paris – rather than Helsinki, which – despite being an exceedingly civilised place to live – remains a rather provincial and dull place in comparison to vibrant, edgy, multicultural madness of a European megalopolis. Finland has now sensibly dropped its “transition period” but does not appear to be overwhelmed by Estonians, Hungarians, Poles, or anyone else. Unlike Slough.

For anyone who has been to (or more likely – through) Slough, this is darkly amusing. Slough is most famous for being the subject of John Betjeman’s famous poem "Slough":

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

In more recent times its fame has increased by being the home town of David Brent of “The Office” fame; and the equally fictional Ali G comes from just down the road in Staines.

When Finland debated in the early 1990s whether it should join the EU one of the anti- arguments was that if the country did join Germans would swoop in and buy up all the lake-front summer cottages. When I first arrived in Finland in the mid-1990s the projected German summer cottage invasion had not occurred and there was definitely a 'slightly miffed' feeling in the press, along the lines of “so what’s wrong with our beautiful lakes and cottages?” I do hope that Slough Council receives some additional assistance from central government to help them integrate the new arrivals and that Slough only benefits from its new Baltic residents. I’m sure Slough, despite all the jokes, is an interesting, diverse and pleasent town. And it appears that David Brent beats Helsinki every time.


Anonymous said...

But but...we will be ready for inevitable German Summer Cottage Invasion of 2050 when the border of Sahara is somewhere north of Munich and UK is under water because of global warming.

Giustino said...

How could Estonians overwhelm anyplace? They can barely overwhelm Estonia!

As a friend pointed out, all of Estonia could move to New York City, and New Yorkers would barely notice.

Aurelius said...

It's been a tough awakening for us Finns to realize that most people do not share our enthusiasm living on the frozen piece of turf far, far away from everything. Question arises; how on earth are we going to attract anybody to fill a looming manpower shortages? Talking about things turning 180 degrees.