What the UK really needs is more bottle wielding yobs
"You need a 64p stamp to Bulgaria," said the clerk at my local Indian-run postoffice. "It's not in the EU."
"Yet," I added.
"Ah yes," he smiled. "I read in the paper. They're afraid Bulgarians and Romanians will take their jobs."
"We just bought a house in Bulgaria," a woman in the queue said. "Frankly, I don't think they'll come in their hundreds of thousands. Why would they, there's so much going on there."
"That's right," the clerk wobbled his head in that Indian way so similar to the Bulgarian "da" headshake. "In a while, there'll be migration the other way - from here to the East. Just wait and see."
The clerk's idea of "a while" sits somewhere between "one day" and "never", despite the Bulgarian property mania that has gripped Britain. After all, holiday homes and seaside villas don't bring a large workforce with them.
But young East Europeans in search of work do, and the looming spectre of this imaginary mass of Bulgarians and Romanians with their hungry eyes trained on Britain has haunted the Home Office since the latest two EU members were voted in. Rewind to 2004 when the EU swelled up and Britain was one of only three countries - with Ireland and Sweden - to give the new member-states unlimited labour access. But Britain had a surprise coming in the form of 600,000 new migrants, more than 30 times the estimated figure and more than half of them Polish. The Poles, hard working and reliable, are a hit in the construction industry.
While this is excellent news for employers and consumers, the news is less good for your average "brickie in Southampton", as a Labour official put it, who has had a 50 percent drop in his day rate. Whether the Southampton brickie is keen to work half as hard as a Polish brickie is a question worth asking economically, but politically it's beside the point.
The point is that two years and half a million East Europeans later, the Labour government feels compelled to rethink its open-door approach - or lose votes. Given that the average monthly wage in Bulgaria is a lot under 200 pounds, the implication is clear, at least to this government: the imminent invasion of "Bulgarian plumbers" must be curbed. Early in September, the Guardian speculated that the Home Office plans for tight work permits were a "thinly veiled attempt to close Britain's doors". If it was veiled then, it now stares you in the face. The Home Secretary John Reid has tied himself in knots trying to draw up a plan to placate those opposed to Britain's open-door policy -unskilled workers, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and in liberal Britain's"tabloid xenophobes" - while not appearing to slam the door and bolt it in the face of those hordes of Bulgarian plumbers.
At first, the restrictions said: only highly skilled migrants, skilled migrants with permits, the self-employed, and 20,000 unskilled workers for both countries. These 20,000 new arrivals would push out the traditional Russian and Ukrainian agricultural workers. An outcry from the farming industry came - after all, non-EU fruit-pickers are cheaper than even the humblest of EU labourers - and Mr Reid shrank the number to 5,000 per country. This is a door so slightly ajar that only the famished can get in - and the illegal.
If caught working in the UK without a permit, something bound to happen under draconian laws, a Bulgarian and their employer face a 1,000-pound fine. Understandably, Bulgarians are unhappy, and threats of introducing reciprocal measures for Britons have been issued - bound to have precisely zero effect on the Bulgarian economy and achieving nothing except to vent anger.
British reactions to Reid's plans are mixed. An angry Foreign Office warns that they will cause a massive "loss of good will" with the two countries. Former Europe minister Keith Vaz laments the damage to Britain's image as "a champion of enlargement". Some Cabinet members complain that the new restrictions will "nuke" Britain's relations with its new EU colleagues.
The Guardian points out that the recent migrant influx has helped control inflation and benefited economic growth, which in turns benefits the poor - but is this too complex a thought for the average Daily Mail reader? The Scottish Executive isn't applauding Mr Reid either: in its effort to counter population decline, it has launched Fresh Talent, a programme attracting new EU migrants to Scotland. The popular BBC radio comedy The News Quiz satirised the government and the fears it panders to. John Reid standing at Dover with bunches of garlic to repel the newcomers is a worry, they said, as he looks so like Gollum. "The Poles? They're everywhere, you can't move for them! Poland is practically empty - not a plumber or a whore for miles."
Or a drunk. On the night-streets of Edinburgh, you're now as likely to be hit by a bottle-wielding Pole as by an indigenous yob. What Britain really needs, I feel, is yet more violent alcoholics. Young Bulgarians with their moderate drinking habits simply won't fit in.