‘Welcome to Luton’, Romanian Arrival Greeted by MPs and a Media Scrum

Victor Spirescu says he’s here to work, hasn’t heard of the NHS and aims to return home ‘very soon with a lot of money’.

Luton airport

A plane approaching the runway at Luton airport. Photograph: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Media

Whatever Victor Spirescu’s dreams of arriving in the UK from Translyvania entailed, it is doubtful they included coffee with the Labour MP Keith Vaz surrounded by TV cameras and microphones minutes after he touched down at Luton airport.

But as one of a tiny handful of Romanians on board Wizz Air flight W63701 from Tirgu Mures to take advantage of the lifting of border restrictions on 1 January, Spirescu, 30, a construction worker travelling with his friend Julian Barbat, a wild boar hunter, found himself in high demand.

Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, and Conservative committee member Mark Reckless were at Luton, they said, “to see for ourselves” the procedures in place on the first day of unrestricted access to the UK for Romanian and Bulgarian workers.

What they found was a plane three-quarters full, with the overwhelming majority of the 146 passengers returning to jobs in the UK having enjoyed Christmas with their families at home. No mass stampede, this.

So when the arrivals door swung open and Spirescu sauntered out, woolly cap pulled down over his ears, swinging his holdall, and confirming he was indeed coming to the UK for the first time, he found himself deluged by microphone-wielding media.

Did he speak English, journalists asked. Yes, he had learned it from watching MTV and films and using the internet, he replied.

Did he have a job? “Yes. I go to work. Tomorrow I work.” He already had a job lined up washing cars and hoped to get a better one. He was “very excited” at the prospect he said. “Maybe it’s the best choice I make for this year.”

It did not take long for someone to mention “the B word”, and to ask his opinion of those who wanted to come to the UK to claim benefits.

Spirescu shrugged goodnaturedly. “I don’t know. I come here to work because I love to work.” He was earning €10 a day in construction back home. Perhaps, he said, “I can get €10 an hour, maybe?”

He seemed genuinely perplexed when quizzed about his knowledge of the National Health Service. “What is that?” he replied.

Home for Spirescu is the small village of Pelisor, in Translyvania. That is where his wife, Catalina, lives and where she waved him off, wishing him good luck and saying she hoped to see him return “very soon with a lot of money”.

And that is where he intends to return. He is here to earn money to “renovate my home and make a good life in Romania because it’s much easier to live in Romania, because it’s not expensive”.

Spirescu found himself a job washing cars through a friend. His boss was sorting out his accommodation. He had chosen the UK over Germany because he doesn’t speak German: he had previously stayed there for two months, “but I don’t understand anything”.

And now he was just a little surprised at his reception. “Yes, a lot of politicians here. My God. Man, I don’t come here to rob your country. I come to work. And you open the borders. I come to work. To make money to go home.”

His interrogation by journalists over, he obliged further with a quick photocall with Vaz before disappearing off for his first full day in the UK.

Vaz’s dawn visit to Luton airport followed evidence to his committee from the Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill about “Olympic-style” arrangements being put in place for 1 January – which was followed by evidence from the home secretary, Theresa May, that it would be “business as usual”.

After a behind-the-scenes tour, Vaz confirmed he and Reckless had found no evidence of Olympic-style security. Neither had they witnessed a New Year’s Day invasion. But Vaz said those arriving on Wednesday provided just a snapshot of those expected over coming months.

“Just on conversations we’ve had with people who have come here, a lot of them are returning people. They already work in Britain and they’re coming back off holiday, so they are not people coming here for the first time,” said the MP for Leicester East. “We’ve seen no evidence of people who have rushed out and bought tickets in order to arrive because it’s 1 January.

“But we do need to resolve this issue in the future, and it’s an issue for the whole of the EU to resolve so we don’t get these kinds of dramas at the end.”

He criticised the government’s refusal to commission estimates of the numbers expected to enter Britain. “There are already 141,000 Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK. The concern of the committee has always been the lack of robust estimates of people coming here and we still feel very strongly the government ought to have asked the migration advisory committee to have conducted a piece of research which would have told us the number of people who were coming into this country,” he said.

Reckless, the Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, said: “I’m here this morning because my party, the Conservatives, we made a promise we would cut immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year. And my concern is that if we do see large numbers coming in from Romania and Bulgaria then that could knock us off that target and the promise we made to the electorate.

“And I think it is essential we meet that promise and control immigration and I think we really need to judge whether in order to do that will require us to leave the European Union and to control again our own borders and ultimately, I think, that’s the choice that the country will face in a referendum.”

The majority of the people on the flight, he said, were already living in the country. But he added: “I think there will be many more people coming tomorrow … Ultimately I think this will build up over months.”

His view was not shared by one other passenger on board flight W63701, a doctor who gave his name as Adrian. Having previously worked in the UK in 2009, he was returning after securing a job as an A&E doctor in Essex. Was he surprised at the fuss? “No, I am not surprised. I think there will be a few people. But I don’t think as many as they say,” he said.

Silviu Todea, 27, who has been in the UK for four years and works in marketing, also believed there would not be a huge influx. Those who came, he believed, would be here to work and not to claim benefits. “It’s pretty expensive to live here in London,” he added.

Others had found the febrile debate deeply unpleasant. Gheorghe Ormensian, who arrived in the UK to begin a three-month study course under the pan-European Erasmus award scheme, said: “All people consider us thieves. And I don’t like that at all. I watched the news last night and saw all this political propaganda. It misconstrues everything about Romanians. It’s nasty.”

– The Guardian