An interview with the county councilor from England Alexandra Bulat, who is a researcher and activist on migration issues and from now on is also a local politician, who works in an area of Great Britain that is pro-European and pro-migration
Alexandra Bulat is a county councilor for Cambridgeshire, England. She is also a research assistant at the University of Strathclyde. She also works for the3million NGO, which campaigns for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. There she is co-manager of a network of young Europeans.
This article was published on 21 May 2021 on the Romanian section of the site “The Barricade”.
Ms. Bulat, let’s start our discussion with this unfortunate development in which ‘The words “Europe” and “European” have become pejorative termswords in the UK. There are many scandals or problems for Europeans. Growing number of incidents can be observed. Recently, some Europeans who were about to enter the UK were detained because they did not have a work contract and were expelled. How did we come to this situation where being European may mean you are a danger or an unwanted person?
Yes, unfortunately a lot of things have changed sincefrom 2016 whenuntil now. In 2016 we had the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. The British public has chosen to leave the EU which finally happened, after long negotiations, on . There have been several negotiations for many years. After 1 January 2021. As a result the United Kingdom severed all ties with the EU in terms of immigration.
What does this mean for Europeans in the UK? Those who arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020 must apply for the new residence status. It’s called pre-settled or settled status. Basically, those who arrived before this date can largely retain the rights they have had so far. But those who arrived in the United Kingdom after this transition period between the United Kingdom and the European Union that ended on 1 January 2021, must have a visa in order to work and study in the United Kingdom. Students from Romania or Bulgaria who want to study here must obtain a student visa. Likewise, those who want to work must have a visa.
It was a time when many Europeans realized that their rights had changed, that they had to take various measures to make various documents in order to hold more rights. Before – after 2015, Romanians and Bulgarians had full labor rights and did not think that this could change at some point after Brexit.
You have studied, including as part of your doctoral research, the migrant communities from Europe, including from Central and South-Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania. And now you are studying the formation of a European migrant community in the United Kingdom with a European identity. What currently characterizes these European communities in the United Kingdom, which are probably very diverse? Do they assume that they are looking for greater political representation?
Yes, I really think that before the 2016 referendum many of us were thinking about the country where we were born – that we are Romanians, Bulgarians or French, but after Brexit many Europeans have a European identity. Because no matter where we are from, our rights are collectively changing. We have to apply for new resident status. Indeed, we have all had various questions about our status. Now I work a lot in the Romanian community. But many other Europeans tell me that they now have a European identity after Brexit.
But unfortunately, as you said earlier, being European does not always have a very positive meaning – not for everyone, but for those who have chosen to leave the EU. They voted to limit immigration from the EU. And in a way there were more negative stereotypes about Europeans, about the impact of Europeans on the labor market here and other things.
So it is a new European identity for many after Brexit. People thus feel more united because there are issues that affect us all legally. But on the other hand, being European has a negative image for other people and some media sources in the UK
You collaborate with the the3million organization, which deals with the situation of migrants and Europeans in the UK. You can tell us a little more about your work there and about the organization itself. How does this organization helpcontribute to solveing suchsocial problems?
Yes. After finding out the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, I became more interested in British politics. Before 2016, I didn’t know much about politics here. I didn’t even know if I could vote in the local elections, Wwhat rights I have as a Romanian and European citizen in Great Britain?.
After the referendum I started going to various events advocatingfor the rights of Europeans in Great Britain. That’s how I found out about the3million. Their first event I attended was in the UK a few years ago in 2017, where I found out that this organization exists. At that time, the organization was barely formed. It was not yet an official organization. It had a Facebook group and some very involved people in the community who wanted to run information campaigns on the rights of Europeans in the UK.
In 2017, the organization became official, registered and began to have more political influence in the UK. I started volunteering there after 2017. The people in the organization even invited me after a few meetings. They said they did not have many volunteers from Central and Eastern Europe to be involved in the fight for European rights after Brexit. They invited me and told me that I was the first Romanian – one of the few people from our regionin Central and Eastern Europe who wanted to be involved in the organization. I started getting involved and working on several volunteer projects.
One of the campaigns was when the system of residence here in Great Britain changed. Initially, all Europeans had to pay a £ 65 fee in order to apply for the new resident status. We intervened and therefore in 2018 they promised us that European citizens settled in the UK will no longer have to pay to receive residency.
Since 2019 I have been working on a for the project called the network of young Europeans. I have noticed that not many young Europeans are involved in this non-governmental organization or in British politics.
From the same year 2019 I started working a few part-time days for this organization. I am currently coordinating some projects for young people in the UK, including two weeks ago I did a project to register young people. We do information projects for European students in the UK, for example. And in general, we try to promote a positive image of Europeans and protect the rights of Europeans. This was promised to us in 2016, when politicians talked about leaving the EU, no one said we could lose rights. They said that all Europeans who were then in Britain would retain all their rights.
The 3 Million organization is working to do that – to keep our rights as they were before and as promised by politicians.
You have become a local councilor. What possibilities does this position give offer you? What plans and intentions do you have in your role as a politician to improve the situation of Europeans in the UK?
Unfortunately, migration policies in the UK are decided at the government and parliamentary level, not at the local level. But the local councilor can do various things to improve the lives of Europeans and all people in the area.
They can run information campaigns. As Europeans who arrived here before 31 December 2020, we have until 30 June 2021 to apply for a pre-settled temporary residence permit or a settled permanent residence permit. It is important that all local politicians in the UK inform the people in their area that it is important to do so in order to protect their rights.
Many campaigns can be done on various topics such as work. There are quite a few people outside of Cambridge who work in agriculture. And the conditions are not necessarily very good. It is important for people to recognize their rights at work so that they know what their rights are, how much they have to be paid, what work benefits they have, what kind of paid leave they can have, for example.
Although we cannot change migration policy at the country level, we can better inform the public. A more informed population about their rights is more active, more involved and happier. When we know our labor rights and where we can call for help if we need it, we have a better life in the end.
But overall, local politics deals with various policies, such as environmental policies, streets and highways, green spaces, schools, kindergartens, and so on. Although it does not only affect Europeans, Europeans are still affected by local politics, because whether we are Europeans or not, we are affected by the state of the streets, by the green spaces. We are affected by local schools. We need more help for the family.
So it is very important to be involved and to represent all the people in the area, not just the English or not just those who vote with us. We need to improve the lives of everyone in the area, no matter where they were born.
According to some reports, the number of Romanians in the United Kingdom amounts to one million people. In addition to them, another important community is represented by Poles, Bulgarians but also by other people from Central and South-Eastern Europe. To what extent is the political representation of these minorities proportional to their number in the United Kingdom?
Unfortunately, there is not much political representation. That’s why I got involved in politics in the elections of May 6, 2021 a few weeks ago.
A year ago, I was interested in local politics in the United Kingdom and I found out that out of a population of almost 800,000 Romanians, who have already applied for residency status (so those who want to stay here) and I wanted to find out how many Romanian representatives do we have, for example. And I had found only two councilors – one from a district sector of the capital London and one councilor from a village council in the east of England. I wondered – why do we only have two2 local politicians, when we have 800,000 Romanians.
The situation is the same with the other nationalities. My colleagues found 10 or 12 Polish counselors. In Great Britain, there are more Poles than Romanians. But there are still not enough advisers given the number of Poles in the UK.
I do not know about the Bulgarian advisers. I even have Bulgarian friends who work for various non-governmental organizations and campaigns. I know Bulgarians involved in the Labor Party, but who did not run. And they say there are very few Bulgarians involved in British politics.
There are very few representatives in Central and South-Eastern Europe. That’s why I have a candidate. We may complain that we are very few, but we must acttake the first step. Let’s get involved. First, let’s vote locally. And let’s run for elections too.But why not run.
We can get involved in many ways – for example in a community project. There are many Romanian, Polish and Bulgarian schools. There are cultural centers and activities in which we can get involved.
You got involved in politics through the Labor Party, which is a left-wing party. It is interesting because in our countries in Southeast Europe there is a stigma that affects the political left. How did you come to this political option?
Yes, it’s interesting. I have spoken to many Romanians in Great Britain and there are many who even vote with the right-wing Conservative Party, which is the right-wing party in British politics. In Cambridge, where I ran, there are many Romanians who vote for the Labor Party, the Green Party or the Liberal Democratic Party. Liberal Democrats are center-right while Labor and Greens are perceived as left-wing.
AndThe question is interesting. hHow did I become a left-wing candidate? I was marked by several events in my life in the UK. I moved to the UK when I was 18 years old. I came to study, but I also had to work during my studies to support myselfpay my rent and certain things. And I was really shocked by certain things.
In Romania, Great Britain had a very positive image. When I was in high school I thought that Britain was a rich country, that there was no poverty, that the British all had a decent life. Then I started living here and traveling. I traveled a lot in the UK. I started to see places very similar to Romania in a way. I remember being in a village in the east of England called Jaywick. This area is in the top ten poorest areas in Europe. I really remember when I was in this village and talked to the people there and did some interviews for my project at that time, I was wondering how we could have in England – the fifth richest country in the world before Brexit (now the seventh) a place that is in the top ten poorest places in Europe.
That influenced my values and personal politics. We have seen how people – not just Europeans, but all, face everyday difficulties. And I realized that citizens do not benefit equally from the policies here. I got involved in the Labor Party, which has programs for a more equal society, a society in which resources are distributed to benefit people who do not have a very good life now.
I think it’s good to think about others, not just how we work and how we buy houses, cars and more. We need to think more about others. I was greatly influenced by my travels in the UK. ИTraveling we have realized that our society is унnot very fair and it is our responsibility to get involved in order to have a more equal and fair society.
The Labor Party was very popular in our area during Corbyn’s time. How is this party evolving after Corbyn left? Are you aiming for certain collaborations, of course in your capacity as a local politician with left-wing circles in our area – Romania, Bulgaria, etc.?
Honestly, I don’t have much political experience related to Romania, because I left at the age of 18. I wasn’t interested in politics there then. I became interested in politics after the referendum.
But it would be interesting to learn more about the projects and policies of the left in other countries. The topic with Corbyn is really interesting. Often what we see on TV, about Keir Starmer, is different from local politics. Locally, most people have not been involved in politics all their lives. Many people have worked various jobs – in education, in the medical system, they are people in the community. After some time of professional activity, they decide that the time has come to get involved and run.
I had no political experience either. I have had no political office before.
The priorities are different between the local and the national plan. For example, Cambridge is a very pro-European area. It’s very pro-immigration. More than 70% of people voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Nationally, the score was 48%. More than 70% of voters vote with pro-European parties and very few are conservative. That’s why I’m very involved.
At the national level, the party is changing. It also depends on the leader. But I don’t think the party leader has much direct influence over local politics. What is happening in Parliament is very different from what is happening in the county council of Cambridge, Oxford or another part of the country.
You get more attacks after you become an elected politician. What empowers you to endure them and todo what you think is right?
Unfortunately, because I was involved in several pro-immigration initiatives and projects, I received more negative comments before getting involved in politics. We have spoken in the press and spoken publicly at events on how to defend the rights of immigrants and Europeans. I received a lot of negative comments.
After the election, I was not surprised that a minority (because the majority supported and encouraged me – thank you) wrote me some negative comments. I expected them, but I didn’t expect them to be so many.
A great news story was written that was shared several times on Twitter and Facebook about these reactions. My reaction is usually very calm. If someone has negative opinions, for example, I try to understand what that person is saying. If he says that there must be more restrictions or that migrants do not contribute to the development of society, I try to create a dialogue. We have to accept that not all people think like us and we have to have a conversation.
On the other hand, there are people who have very negative reactions. People who say, “Go home! Go home! What are you looking for in politics in this country? ” There are also very racist and xenophobic reactions towards Romanians, such as that Romanians are all criminals or that Romanians steal jobs. Or even worse – some comments are insulting in a way.
I read those commentsthem, but I always tell myself that this is not the majority of people. Most people I talk to and know are usually open to having conversations. They can also see positive things about migration. There will always be people who talk like that about migrants, refugees and people who weare not born in this country.
It is not necessarily a solution, but I hope I can do something locally to improve people’s lives and focus on the political aspect of the lives of Romanians and Europeans in the UK.
Photo: Alexandra Bulat (source: Alexandra Bulat)
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