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Migrant workers and a misplaced nastiness

Laszlo Andor, the EU Commissioner who last week claimed that the UK could develop a "nasty image" because of its attitude to immigration, provoked a predictable storm in England.

He was rebuked by David Cameron and seemed in danger of becoming the latest hate figure of the - well, nastier - sections of the English media.

Mr Andor's comments were prompted by the fears, no doubt exaggerated, but undoubtedly genuine, that Britain is soon to "welcome" a huge influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. Obviously the arrival of foreign citizens in significant numbers can cause tensions, particularly if they try to settle in places where right-wing, anti- immigration groups hold sway.

But most of the Bulgarians and Romanians will be coming here to the UK in order to work. I'm sure they will find jobs (sometimes jobs that British people do not want to do), and work hard at them. If there is a balance sheet here, I think that migrant workers bring far more pluses than minuses. The free movement of labour is, in theory anyway, an underpinning basic premise of EU membership.

In this context it is encouraging to see the line taken in the White Paper on Independence launched by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon last week. It was clear: an independent Scotland would welcome skilled workers, There was, the paper insisted, an economic rationale for "growing" Scotland's working-age population. There would also be guaranteed access to the Scottish welfare system for asylum seekers. A points-based immigration policy would be implemented to attract specific workers.

So the tone was certainly anything but "nasty", even if the policy was somewhat selective.

The two problems with this are that an independent Scotland might find it difficult, in the short term, to become a member of the EU; and if we were to have an immigration policy that was distinct from England's then border controls would become more likely, if not inevitable.

The crucial point is that the spirit of this section of the White Paper is one of positivity rather than fear. It is realistic and refreshing to read an honest admittance that an independent Scotland would need more immigrant workers. There is absolutely nothing here that panders to any "Little Scotland" paranoia.

By coincidence, today figures are released by the Oxford University Migration Observatory which show that Scotland's foreign-based population almost doubled in the decade between 2001 and 2011. This was a much larger increase than in England, though Scotland's foreign-born population, at 7%, remains smaller.

This significant growth in Scotland's immigrant population largely reflects the sharp increase in the number of Poles coming here. There are 55,000 Poles in Scotland. I reckon this is a bonus and even a blessing. I have met quite a few Polish workers and they seem to me to be very industrious, pleasant people. Of course subjective assessments based on casual encounters should count for little in this debate, though subjective evidence can be used to counter incipient prejudice and even to prevent "nastiness". Which takes me back to Mr Andor.

As a Hungarian, he could have chosen his words a little more carefully. The reaction was depressing, but he need not have prompted it. Hungary has a record that is anything but unblemished when it comes to racial prejudice and the poor treatment of foreigners.

Of course, one of the underpinning reasons for the creation of the EEC and the subsequent development of the EU was the racial hatreds and divisions that scarred so much of mainland Europe in the years after the Second World War. I've been praising Poles, but in the years after the war the Polish nation was enthusiastically, if understandably, trying to drive out all foreigners, and particularly Germans, Jews and Ukrainians.

The underlying truth in all this is that in today's Europe, an ethnically homogenous nation-state is just a dream, and a pretty nasty one at that. In that respect, Mr Andor was absolutely right.

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