EU Migrants: Differences, Inequalities and Distinctions

By Simone Varriale

‘He [a colleague] used to call me ‘spaghetto’, once, twice, three times, four times, then I told him to stop […] I mean, ‘spaghetto’, I can take it once, twice, but we aren’t friends, we haven’t even had lunch together, or a coffee or something, how dare you […]’

Giacomo (37, Italian, housekeeper and warehouse worker)

Before the Brexit, EU migrants coming from Western Europe were not particularly concerning for scholars and policy makers, neither in UK nor in the rest of Europe. It was argued that these migrants were highly educated and employed in high-status professions, and that they did not move for economic necessity, but to chase educational and career opportunities facilitated by freedom of movement, especially since the establishment of the Erasmus Programme (1987) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1992). There was also an assumption that such migrants, being white and from Western Europe, were either invisible to the local population, or perceived as culturally proximate, hence as ‘non-problematic’. 

People like Giacomo – without degrees and in low-skill employment – were barely visible in this scholarship, even in studies which troubled the image of the smoothly integrated EU migrant. Indeed, Giacomo is part of a more recent kind of EU migration, one that originates mostly in South European countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal. The size and composition of this South-to-North migration remains uncertain, as EU migrants can be difficult to pin down. It is also unclear to what extent it is caused by the crisis which, since the 2008 financial crash, has affected South European economies. An emergent literature suggests that the ‘old’ West-EU migrant – highly-skilled, educated and white – is still a reliable ideal-type. However, my own research suggests a more diverse and unequal picture.

I am interviewing Italians who moved to the UK after 2008 and who live in the West Midlands and London. So far I have collected 40 interviews with people with different educational qualifications – from compulsory schooling to PhD – and employment histories. My sample has an equal number of women and men, a wide age-range (16-55) and includes both white and black/ethnic minority Italians. These differences are crucial, as they shape the social position that Italians occupied before moving to the UK, the motivations that fostered their migration, and the very experience of living and working in the UK. Indeed, one could argue that the image of the professional, well-established West-EU migrant is not simply the product of a different historical context, but also of specific methodological choices, such as a predominant focus on graduatesprofessionals and inter-company transfers.

However, not all Italians – and perhaps not all South-EU migrants – are reducible to this ideal-type. Moreover, with the rise of ‘EU migrants’ as a category of media and political commentary, we should resist the idea that European citizens are a homogeneous social group, one defined exclusively by its privileged citizenship status and its whiteness. First, thinking in this way obscures both the experience of black and ethnic minority EU citizens, and important hierarchies of nationality and ethnicity. Not all ‘white’ Europeans are equally welcome in the UK, and indeed East European migrants have suffered forms ofeconomic and symbolic discrimination which West-EU migrants – at least those in high-skill employment – have encountered more rarely.

My own research provides evidence of this hierarchy of whiteness and its effects in everyday life. Both Britons and other migrants frequently associate Italians with positive cultural images, such as the artistic heritage of Italian cities (‘Rome, how beautiful’), desirable and ‘authentic’ food, and the mildly exotic prospect of a holiday – if not retirement – on the Adriatic and Tuscan seasides. Similar ideas also inform the identity of Italian migrants: some think that Italian culture is ‘objectively superior’, or that Italians ‘do things better’. These assumptions can confer an implicit and (for that reason) very powerful sense of entitlement, especially when they find external confirmation.

Some of my participants were told by employers or acquaintances that ‘they are not Romanians’ or ‘Poles’, hence they are not the ‘real’ problem of Brexit. At the same time, this valuable ethnicity does not protect Italians from the increasingly problematic position of ‘foreigners’. As such, they can sometimes become victims of mocking, harsh treatment or more explicit forms of racism. In these situations, Italianness can turn into a less desirable identity (‘spaghetto’), as revealed by Giacomo and others’ stories.

More generally, neither entitlement nor positive stereotypes can shield my participants from the risk of social immobility or demotion, which brings me to the second reason for critically scrutinising the notion of ‘EU migrants’. Whiteness can be magnified, or threatened, by inequalities of class. Education and family background, indeed, provide the economic and cultural resources to ‘live up’ to the expectations of social and symbolic centrality associated with (Italian) whiteness, as well as with the status of West-EU ‘expat’. 

Graduates, and those in higher education in the UK, are generally better equipped to achieve these forms of recognition, which they associate with access to high-status, relatively secure and well paid jobs; especially if compared with similar positions in Italy. When access to these positions is secured, participants will mobilise a well entrenched myth about British society: that it is more ‘meritocratic’ than Italy, and that their success is simply an individual outcome of their talent and hard work. Italians’ belief in this cultural myth plays a crucial role in blinding them to the structural divisions of British society. Some of my respondents firmly believe that if someone doesn’t ‘make it’ in the UK, this must be entirely their fault. Others explicitly rejected the suggestion (mine) that class, race or ethnicity may be sources of stigma and disadvantage in the UK.  

However, those ‘stuck’ in low-skill employment have a more ambiguous relationship with the meritocracy narrative. For Giacomo, who has a history of short-term, low-skill work in Italy – which culminated in unemployment – the point is that ‘at least’, here, he has ‘a job’; perhaps not a ‘great one’, but still. Despite episodes of racism, and the sense of isolation that he and his partner experience in the West Midlands, there is still the possibility of better paid work compared to Italy, and the relative stability of an open-ended contract (which he obtained after a year and a half of short-term assignments).

At the same time, not all graduates are keen to jump on the meritocracy bandwagon, as not all degrees can easily secure middle class positions. My research is revealing how degrees unlock unequal opportunities, both in Italy and the UK, and how these differences shape my participants’ biographies and sense of security. While highly-demanded qualifications, like engineering and nursing, can satisfy the meritocracy myth in a few months – sometimes securing the ‘right’ job before migrating – other qualifications, like literature, languages and media, can lead to more precarious paths, and hence to more ambivalent feelings about one’s present and future; especially for those who are into their thirties.

My participants, however, rarely discuss these differences in terms of inequalities. What they tend to discuss are distinctions of individual behaviour and ‘culture’. Especially among professionals and graduates, there is a feeling that since the economic crisis, ‘too many Italians’ have moved to the UK. These ‘other’ Italians are usually associated with the catering sector. ‘Italian waiters’ are imagined as lacking qualifications and a ‘rational plan’ for moving abroad, or as people who are ‘vulgar’ and ‘noisy’. Some respondents even associate waiters with ‘Southerners’, thus reproducing the long-standing idea of Southern Italians as culturally backwards. These distinctions, thus, disguise systemic inequalities of region, education and background into individual differences of character and morality. They also convey the image of a coherent social group – Italian waiters – which doesn’t really exist, as people from different regions, and with different qualifications and plans for their future, can end up, temporarily or permanently, in the catering sector.

These intersections between race, ethnicity and class suggest that we should not mistake a journalistic and political category – EU migrants – for a sociologically meaningful one. They also suggest that the effects of the Brexit, whatever its concrete outcome, will be deeply asymmetrical, and that they will be further complicated by genderage and lifecourse (which I couldn’t discuss here). While it is important to recognise that EU citizenship confers substantial and frequently unchecked privileges, we also need to understand how these privileges are reinforced, or undermined, by other social differences. This requires a more sustained dialogue between different areas of specialism, such as race and ethnicity studies, class analysis, feminist theory and migration studies.

Simone Varriale is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick. His work explores how transnational forces transform the relations between identity, culture and inequalities. He has investigated these issues in relation to musical globalization in Italy, and unequal migrations from Italy to the UK (his current post-doc project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust). His previous work has been published in the book Globalization, Music and Cultures of Distinction and in the journals PoeticsCultural SociologyAmerican Behavioral Scientist and Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia.

Originally posted 1st June 2017.

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