One Sunday evening, while I was trying to avoid ironing my shirts, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to take Nigel Farage to Bulgaria or Romania. The Ukip leader is convinced that hordes of people from these countries are poised to pour into Britain when the rules are relaxed next year, so why not go there with him to see if he’s right?
A few weeks later, I put my proposal to him. ‘But nobody will come here from Romania,’ said Nigel. ‘They’ve eaten all the transport.’ So we went to Bulgaria.
‘I am getting lots of funny looks,’ observed the scourge of open-door immigration as we walked past scores of wide-eyed Bulgarians settling down on the plane to Sofia. ‘You can count on my vote, sir,’ the steward travelling in the opposite direction quietly assured him. ‘Can I get you anything to drink?’
I’d arranged to be met by a pair of burly Bulgarian bodyguards, and we drove straight from the airport to the Fakulteta camp, a gypsy ghetto in which horses and carts plough furrows along muddy roads. ‘Will you be claiming benefits while you are here, Nigel?’ I had asked en route. ‘No, and I won’t be travelling by horse and cart either,’ he said.
In Fakulteta, thousands of Bulgarians live in squalor with no jobs and no central heating, so marginalised they don’t bother sending their children to school. Mr Farage was wearing a green tweed jacket, corduroys and brown brogues. He looked like a Victorian squire paying a visit to his downtrodden villagers. So were any of these Bulgarian Roma coming to Britain in search of benefits? ‘We are not used to the climate, with lots of rain,’ one man told us, shaking his head. ‘Every stone has its own resting place. We love our homeland.’ The man said he scavenged through bins to feed his children and his family ran the risk of being beaten up by skinheads. But it was preferable to Britain. ‘Nigel, we have a problem,’ I whispered. ‘What if we don’t actually find Bulgarians planning to come?’
‘Don’t worry, we will,’ said Nigel.
I introduced him to Tsvetelin Kanchev, a Roma leader and politician, a Bulgarian ‘Mr Big’ who organised a riotous party in the Ukip leader’s honour. A trestle table was groaning with beer, Bulgarian schnapps, and bottles of Johnnie Walker. After Mr Farage sat down, a rotund gypsy, sounding like Tom Jones, sang into one of his ears, while a saxophonist honked down the other. ‘We had imagined you as some sort of three-headed monster or a dragon,’ said Kanchev. ‘We are happy to meet a smiley person.’
And had his people booked their bus tickets to Britain? Mr Kanchev reacted with bafflement: ‘But there are British people raping and molesting young children! Not that all British do this,’ he added quickly. ‘Not you or Shakespeare or Mr Elton John.’
A cake was produced with a picture of the European Parliament in the icing on top. Farage roared with laughter, and after a little persuasion Strasbourg’s representative for South East England began dancing to a gypsy tune with a thin, peroxide Bulgarian blonde. ‘You may well be right,’ Farage concluded in his farewell speech, ‘that in a very tight-knit community like the Roma, very few people will come to Britain.’
It sounded like a change of heart. In the car afterwards, he was clearly impressed by a people whose pride in their national identity seemed as profound as his own. But maybe, he reflected, they hadn’t heard about British benefits yet. I told him an old Bulgarian proverb which he agreed might sum up the benefits problem: ‘The person who is eating the pie is not crazy. The crazy one is the person offering the pie in the first place.’
But wasn’t it more likely, I continued, that Bulgarians would head to the 19 other EU states which have already implemented unrestricted working rights? Just as great a danger, he argued, was that Bulgarians already in Spain and Italy witnessing the collapse of the eurozone would move to the UK.
The next day I took him to meet Father Ivan Ivanov, a grey-bearded Orthodox priest who runs an orphanage for over a hundred small children. ‘I am certain that once the barriers to entry are removed, lots of people will go.’ said Father Ivan. ‘ The first wave of immigrants is likely to contain the hungry and the criminals, side by side.’
Daniela Ilieva, a mother of two, told Farage she was hoping to travel to the UK. ‘I have friends who work in England and they are very pleased with the system,’ she said, clearly attracted by the prospect of ‘dividends’ for her family.
In one of Sofia’s oldest markets, an old woman with tears in her eyes said she feared the exodus of an entire generation; but a young unemployed man who made honey to get by said friends were more important than money; he was staying put in Bulgaria.
Even Farage’s friend and fellow MEP, Slavi Binev of Bulgaria’s Proud Party, told him not to predict an invasion. Bulgarians prefer sunnier climes, he said. ‘He doesn’t know, and I don’t know,’ Ukip’s leader responded. ‘But look at the Poles. Every previous guesstimate on their numbers was wrong by a factor of ten.’
That evening Mr Binev took us to dinner in a mountainside hunting lodge. The red wine flowed and two dancers, Ivana and Lazarina, flashed their knickers. The showgirls, it turned out, had performed in a nightclub in London earlier this year, but had been so badly exploited by their Bulgarian paymasters that they’d counted the days until their flight home. ‘Over there we got treated as second-class citizens,’ Lazarina said. ‘The weather was bad, the food was bad and I started to lose my hair.’
‘I lost my hair too!’ said Ivana.
‘Dear mother of god, I will tell you something,’ Lazarina continued. ‘British men get so wasted!’
On the day we were flying home, I’d arranged for Farage to appear on one of Bulgaria’s biggest television chat shows. It was his best chance to slay the country’s image of him as a monster, but the presenter seemed hell-bent on slaying him first. ‘Isn’t it true that your country has developed historically… by colonising and using cheap labour?’ she asked, before querying the French Huguenot immigrant origins of the name ‘Farage’. ‘You yourself are the fruit of immigration!’ she scoffed. Her coup de grace? ‘Is it not the case that without immigrants, the women in your country would grow moustaches, because you would have ended up marrying your first cousins?’ At this, even Nigel Farage was lost for words.
In the car back to the airport, I asked Ukip’s leader if his visit had changed his mind. ‘I think it reconfirms my view,’ he said, ‘that we are at risk from a substantial migratory wave.’
I didn’t quite believe him.
Jonathan Rugman is Foreign Affairs Correspondent of Channel 4 News.