When MPs voted down an amendment in early February to the bill that will give the government the go-ahead to trigger Britain’s exit from the European Union, they set the stage for EU citizens to be used as political human shields. Rejecting calls to guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK after Brexit, the UK government has now officially endorsed the idea put forward by the secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, of using EU citizens as one of the UK’s “main cards” for the upcoming negotiations.
The House of Lords may yet pass an amendment in favour of EU citizens’ rights, but the damage has already been done by poisoning the atmosphere around the issue of EU migrants in the UK.
Spouses, friends, neighbours, colleagues, business partners, long-term residents and children now live in utter uncertainty over what comes next. As bargaining chips, their lives are in limbo. And anyway, the public is told, the UK won’t be anti-immigrant, but will select the best according to their economic value. So far, so inhumane.
This, we are to believe, is an unprecedented action which is called for by an exceptional situation. But there are, in fact, very clear precedents.
Up for sale
When Nicolae Ceaușescu rose to power in Romania in 1965, he was welcomed by Western governments as a moderniser and anti-Soviet. Only a few years later, he was using Romanian citizens who were also German or Jewish – known as co-nationals – as bargaining chips. They were sold at a good price to the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel to address Romania’s increasingly unmanageable household deficit.
These were German and Jewish communities (roughly 350,000 each at the beginning of the Cold War) who had lived on the territory of Romania for centuries, but were now part of a bigger Cold War game. All those who left did so voluntarily. Individuals who applied to emigrate, in the German case under the guise of reuniting with their families in West Germany, became welcome pawns for the Romanian state.
Informally, it had been common practice for the West German government to pay for Romanian Germans who wished to leave Romania for West Germany since the 1950s. The Securitate (secret police) and the border police were able to make good money by easing the bureaucratic obstacles for some German migrants with this unofficial trade. It was not until the late-1960s under Ceaușescu that this practice was endorsed officially.
Skilled workers ‘cost’ more
Initially, prices varied according to the “value” of the individual: education, skills, age. Categorising humans according to economic value was part and parcel of thinking about Romania’s co-nationals.
Official contact between West Germany and Romania emerged, in part, out of a humanitarian concern for Germans living in Romania, though the practice of facilitating emigration had a darker side to it. According to the chief negotiator for West Germany in Romania between 1967 and 1989, Heinz-Günther Hüsch, from 1969 there were five categories into which Germans were placed.
Category A included the economically useless: the elderly (men over 62, women over 60), the disabled, the uneducated – the economic ballast. They were worth 1,800 Deutschmarks (DM), around £800 in today’s money. A bargain surely, according to the impeccable logic of the Romanian socialist state, but “useless” in the narrow sense of the word.
The next two categories (B1 and B2) went hand in hand. B1 were students who had yet to complete their courses. B2 referred to those who were closer to completion than B1. Priced at 5,500 and 7,000 DM respectively, the Romanian state hoped to lure West Germany into buying this prospective economic talent at an affordable price. Once they had completed their studies (Category C), they were worth 11,000 DM.
Finally, skilled workers (Category D) merely cost 2,900 DM. This system was later simplified. In 1978, the government of Helmut Schmidt agreed publicly to pay a flat rate for every German who wanted to come from Romania. Towards the end of the Cold War, a German cost on average of just over 8,500 DM.
This process of “Menschenhandel” continued at a breathless pace until the final days of the Ceaușescu government in December 1989. Between 1977 and 1989 roughly 11,000 Germans were bought and sold each year. The number of Germans who had left Romania totalled around 210,000 by 1989.
Jewish bargaining chips
But the trade in Germans was hardly an isolated case. Romania’s Jews were also bargaining chips early on in the Cold War. According to the historian Hildrun Glass, over 100,000 Jews were sold at 8,000 Lei (£310) per head between 1948 and 1951 to Israel with the help of the US-based Joint Distribution Committee. Others were sold in exchange for industrial tools and livestock. The decision to leave was often final.
This practice continued, albeit at a lower speed, throughout the Cold War under Ceaușescu from 1965. As with the Germans, Romania’s Jews were sold at different prices according to their economic “worth”.
Caught between the need to conform, the bureaucratic leviathan of the Romanian state apparatus, and the real pecuniary hope of being sold to West Germany and Israel respectively, German and Jewish co-nationals were reduced to pawns in the great Cold War game. Their lives were in constant limbo, uncertain where they would be just a few months ahead.
Ceaușescu was so content with this set-up, he triumphantly proclaimed that “oil, Germans, and Jews are our most important export commodities”.
Given the precarious position of the UK in the upcoming divorce negotiations from the EU, one can only imagine the Brexiteers in government muttering similar sentiments about EU citizens in the UK. The Tory grandee Ken Clarke is right to say that no sensible countries hold referendums (even Ceaușescu only held one, in 1986, on reducing the size of the military). Surely only malicious countries treat humans as negotiating cards.