Britain and Romania: a short history of a troubled romance

Romania is a country of attraction and danger for the British. Today it's contaminated slaughterhouses and the threat of a new influx of immigrants. But this discourse plays into a historical narrative that can be traced to the Nineteenth Century, Count Dracula and further back into the mists of time.

The British government has recently put forward proposals to design adverts intended to dissuade Romanians and Bulgarians from coming to Britain following a six-year hiatus between Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU and their citizens enjoying the same rights (travel) as other EU citizens. To be sure, the current anti-Romanian discourse can be read as a manifestation of good old-fashioned English xenophobia, though one might also see it as a response to the threat of globalisation. More interesting, however, is the story of the long-standing British loathing of and attraction to Romania.The Guardian asked readers to send in their own 'don't come here' posters. Above is one example.

Ever since British (or mainly English) travellers began exploring the Carpathians from the 1860s onwards, Romanians and Romanian society have posed an intriguing conundrum to British onlookers. The Romanian lands offered an escape from urban and industrial Britain. Travellers such as Mary Adelaide Walker in 1888 admired the tranquillity of the rural monasteries in Northern Moldova. At the same time, a growing sense of foreboding and loathing took hold of British imaginings of what is now Romania. Transylvania, of course, was at this point part of the Hungarian Kingdom within the Habsburg Empire. Nonetheless, it was encounters with the majority population of Romanians, and not with Hungarians, Jews, or Germans / Saxons, that gave these travels and their reports an exotic and dark twist. Hungarians were often depicted as noblemen while Saxons were admired for their austere Protestant appearances. By contrast, Wallach or Romanian peasants were exotic and untrustworthy.

Bram Stoker’s magnum opus Dracula synthesized many of the experiences and impressions of British travellers in the southeast of Europe while inscribing a narrative of blood-sucking Romanians onto the British public imagination of Romania. The real danger emanating from Count Dracula was the count’s ability to change his appearance and make the streets of London unsafe. Following failed negotiations with the English lawyer Jonathan Harker in Transylvania, the count then embarked on a journey of his own to England. International trade in the waters of the Bosporus and Aegean Sea in the late Nineteenth Century made his passage to England possible. Similarly, the EU’s internal open borders have shaped the fear of a contemporary influx of Romanians to the UK. Just as Dracula sucked the blood of the young English women Mina and Lucy, so, too, are Romanians accused of taking British jobs and sucking the welfare state dry. There are of course legitimate concerns regarding the impact of globalisation on any society, yet the fear of Romanians draining Britain as articulated at present is in part a cultural heritage from the late Victorian era.

Count Dracula

At the same time, there has been a continued curious attraction to Romanian society. The main problem in Dracula was the count’s arrival in Britain, not the existence of a faraway country. On the contrary, Jonathan Harker’s first of two journeys to Transylvania was marked by a sense of awe and bewilderment. In any case, Harker’s journeys were seen as absolutely necessary and professional undertakings. Harker, a respectable English gentleman, travelled to Transylvania to deal in real estate and later solve the otherworldly problems of Romanians. His presence and actions in Transylvania are portrayed unquestionably as a good thing – a stark contrast to the presence of the count in London. There are noteworthy and obvious parallels between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the contemporary debate on Romania and migration. Potential Romanian migrants are seen as a clear threat to British society. All the while, another respectable English gentleman, Prince Charles, continues to meddle in Transylvanian and Romanian matters. The Mihai Eminescu Trust, of which the Prince is the Royal Patron, exercises a great degree of influence over Romanian / Transylvanian society. It shapes and determines the appearance of former Saxon villages in Transylvania, often at the whim of Prince Charles’s personal taste and with little regard for its current inhabitants, which mainly consist of Romanians and Roma. The Trust offers money in exchange for architectural subservience by local villagers to its ideas. The Trust comprises a whole host of British luminaries some of which are or have been connected to the Conservative Party – the very same party that now constitutes the government dissuading Romanians from coming to Britain. It is thus perfectly acceptable for British individuals and organisations to make use of the porous borders within the EU in order to shape the way Romanians and Roma live in Romania. Uncivilized as they are, however, Romanians cannot be trusted to travel to Britain.

It seems, however, that Britain is not only threatened by Romanian migrants, but also by contamination from Romanian abbatoirs. The ‘horse meat scandal’, which is currently sweeping across Britain, was initially blamed on Romanian slaughterhouses. When the story broke about processed beef in ready-made meals turning out to be horse meat, the media instantly pointed the finger at Romanian meat production. Without any real evidence, a narrative was concocted, which saw Romanians poisoning unknowing, ordinary Brits with horse flesh. In the true tradition of Dracula’s clandestine intrusion into British bodies, the Romanian meat-factory CarmOlimp (located in Transylvania, of course) has stood accused of intruding on and polluting British society. Dracula struck in the sleep at night; CarmOlimp at dinner in the evening. Dracula injected his poison directly into the bloodstream; CarmOlimp appeared to be corrupting the British gut. In both cases, Romanians have physically harmed Britons in a sinister way. It does not matter that only days after the initial accusations levelled at Romanian meat-production, evidence for these claims appears to be quite weak. Both Dracula and the purported Romanian horse meat could only make it into Britain due to free trading links across permeable borders within Europe. 

This is not only a commentary on the schizophrenic stance of right-wing Eurosceptics (yes to open borders and the free market; no to the consequences thereof in Britain). It also lies at the centre of a tortured British attraction to Romania: A fear of ‘them’ and a great fascination for their country. Yet there is also a further side to this image of the ‘dark other’ that emerged from the late Nineteenth Century onwards. Romania – as the rest of south-eastern Europe – had the audacity of never being part of the British Empire. As a result, Romania and Romanians have never been known to the British public beyond regurgitated second-hand reports. On the few occasions when British interests were tied up in the south-east of Europe (as is currently the case), this seemed to result in more problems for Britain. Now, it appears, Romanians are enjoying the benefits of some degree of economic unity with the UK without ever having paid their dues through the experience of Empire. It is in this context that the proposals for negative adverts for Britain must be understood. Like the efforts of our heroes in Dracula, the negative adverts take on the role of the garlic and consecrated objects designed to repel Dracula. These unconscious prejudices, undoubtedly provoked by the current confusion caused by the EU and the experience of concurrent globalisation, have deep cultural roots in Britain. It is therefore unsurprising that potential Romanian migration is used as a symbol of the perceived threat the EU poses to British society. Romania and Romanians still embody the unknown danger lurking on the fringes of south-eastern Europe. 

Modern-day Sibiu, Romania. Image: Flickr / Mates II

About the author

Dr James Koranyi teaches history at the University of Durham.