Chris Bowlby explores past and present attitudes to Romanian and Bulgarian immigration
First came the Poles, Czechs and Latvians. Now the great anxiety in the British immigration debate is that Romanians and Bulgarians will arrive in their thousands, once they have access to the labour market next year. “The Mafia bosses who can’t wait to flood Britain with beggars,” ran one recent headline.
It is rare for countries in Europe’s east to be subject to so much British attention. The context for this debate – these countries’ recent accession to the EU – ought perhaps to mark their final emergence from behind a barrier of ignorance and mutual hostility. But what the latest debate has revealed are deep-rooted perceptions.
Alex Drace-Francis, associate professor of European cultural history at the University of Amsterdam and a Romania specialist, argues that people from this part of Europe have long faced a prejudice “sometimes bordering on racism, even if it is not centred on colour”. One British writer visiting Bulgaria, Romania and neighbouring states before the First World War entitled his book Through Savage Europe.
Romania’s Latin links have persuaded some western observers to see it as a more ‘civilised’ place than neighbouring Balkan and Slav territories. But popular perceptions of Romania have latched onto a few exceptional but potent symbols. Even before Bram Stoker set his novel Dracula in Transylvania, stories of strange customs and superstitions made an impression on a British audience. The Roma (gypsy) minority – sometimes confused with Romanians – are another ‘exotic’ but ultimately misunderstood element. Dr Drace-Francis, who has analysed references to Romanians in British sources from the 18th century to the present, suggests that the British seem “almost proud of talking about Romania as a weird place”.
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