‘Just because the stranger has become a neighbour does not mean we have to work any less hard to understand him well’
To paraphrase Edward Said – “everyone who writes about eastern Europe must locate himself vis-à-vis eastern Europe; translated into his text, this location includes the kind of narrative voice he adopts, the type of structure he builds, the kinds of images, themes, motifs that circulate in his text – all of which add up to different ways of addressing the reader, containing eastern Europe and speaking in its behalf.”
With immigration listed as the second reason for which voters opted to leave the EU one of the questions that comes up is that of intra-European migration, particularly from eastern Europe, as a reason for the UK to exit the EU.
Farage’s bigoted comments about Romanians and Bulgarians cannot be ignored, as it was part of the build-up towards the current result, bringing to light a type of racism that is usually less spoken about, in which old undertones of predominant Western superiority can be discovered. Farage has often expressed his concern at the high numbers of Romanians who would want to live in a “civilized country” because they live like animals in their own country.
In the same vein, media depictions of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria have contributed to a discourse that has actively cultivated the idea of a different, rather disliked kind of “EU – European”. This messaging has been used to paint the political image of everything that the British public should at the very least be mindful of, if not outright despise or fear as a source of economic anxiety, but more insidiously as a type of identity-challenge to a kind of underlying, yet dominant idea of what it means to be European.
The bigotry has been so pervasive in its stereotyping of Romanians generically as being part of crime bands, stealing jobs and living on benefits that some parts of the British media have also asked rhetorically “Why has Romania got such a bad public image?”.
While the answer may not be straightforward, what is almost certain is that this bigotry will have played to the tune of anti-immigration sentiment. Recurring bigoted statements contributed to a growing, public racism that reveals the true extent of anti-eastern European sentiment, which was expressed in its post-Brexit manifestations: ”Dozens of alleged racist incidents were reported to the police in parts of England over the weekend, including cases where Poles and other eastern Europeans were the victims of racial abuse.”
Therefore, one of the least understood and insufficiently debated forms of discrimination is the one that happens within categories of supposed sameness. Intra-European discrimination is not conceivable in racist terms, yet the recurrent negative discourse and image about Romanians has undoubtedly fuelled British right-wingers whose knowledge of anything Romanian and Bulgarian or Polish for that matter, mainly comes from the soundbites of bigotry that have freely ‘invaded’ their imagination, more so than any actual invasion by Romanians or Bulgarians.
This makes the expectation of living in the UK, but also in the EU more generally, conflicting for millions of people who know “what many people think when they hear Romania”. There seems to be a very specific type of subtext about the referencing to Romanian and Bulgarian migrants that favours an expectation of bigotry towards them.
It is difficult to assess to what extent the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, and the subsequent exposure to their citizens has contributed to the new wave of western European nationalism, but what is certain is that no other EU citizens have stirred up as much bigotry in the imagination of the British public in the past decade. To ignore this build-up of intra-European bigotry is to misunderstand, at least in part, the ways in which Europe’s newest citizens are being used as a scapegoating instrument in internal politics.
A recent piece published on the Financial Times blog warned that eastern European population loss is the largest in modern history. Among them Romania is the EU member state most affected by the freedom of free movement after its accession in 2007, a moment that comes at a high price in terms that are not primarily monetary.
Net migration is the driving cause of population decline in Romania, with more than 10% of its population living outside the country and inside the EU mostly in in Italy, Spain, Germany and Hungary. While migrants come from all economic and social backgrounds, it is fair to say that economic hardship is among, if not the main driver. Battling the second highest poverty rate in the EU, Romania is Europe’s cheap, go to source for unqualified labour – or put differently “Wherever uneducated, rather than educated, workers are needed, employers look for Romanians.”
In May 2016 a team of investigative journalists from Al Jazeera English unravelled the abuse that migrants in the UK are exposed to, and perhaps unsurprisingly Romanians represent one of the top categories of abused workers. The easiest way to get away with exploitative treatment of EU low-skilled workers in the UK is in cases of employment agencies hiring workers as ‘self-employed’ for roles usually filled by employees. This has occurred in various sectors, but mainly in the construction industry, in care homes, cleaning positions and in hotels and restaurants.
This situation is worsened by the fact that many of those leaving the country have left their children behind, and also considerably “downgraded” their skillset. The European Commission estimates that, on average, about 30 per cent of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in the EU perform jobs well below their education or skill level. There is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence around nurses or teachers leaving to work as nannies or cleaners for better pay and there is also evidence to suggest that Romanian and Bulgarian au pairs in particular are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation such as denial of payment or length of working hours.
In challenging the idea of what would be acceptable for EU citizens working rights’ it seems that what would not be conceivable in the case of workers from the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, or Germany, somehow becomes acceptable for workers from Romania and this cannot go unquestioned.
A recent piece on workers in the textile industry in Romania shows how big firms such as Kenzo or Escada turn to Romanian labour as a way to maintain lower prices on their products. And while this is understandable, what is less acceptable is that what they get away with, which is the delay in the payment of salaries and instilling working regimes where ”Workers were instructed not to talk to each other and only to go to the bathroom in an emergency. Their boss would tell them they were not working hard enough”. Worryingly enough there is probably very little awareness about such cases as “Customers have this preconception — 'Made in Europe, it must be fair'... But that's not true." Like any label, the European label too hides many things.
Leaving aside potentially dramatic tones, the old fault-lines in Europe are not going away any time soon. The imagery that the right-wing in Britain and the corresponding wording in the media about who and how Romanians are, is still fraught with types of exoticism that do not quite express intentions of understanding or dialogue.
It is almost taken for granted, perhaps by both Romanians and non-Romanians alike, that whatever message comes out of a big western European media outlet, it will hold some undertone of superiority. The one question that arises then is, to whose service does this denigration pay heed and, more ardently perhaps, does the negative depiction of Romania not contribute as well to maintaining an image of somehow being undeserving of better treatment?
It seems that it is high time for some balance, beginning with countering and questioning the understanding, knowledge and indeed legitimacy of those whose soundbites are so very audible. Therefore, the “new Europeans” need to tell their own stories, as they see and understand them at a time when the Western part of the continent is more than eager to capitalize on the inferiority of its eastern counterpart.
 William Radice in Rabidranath Tagore Selected Short stories, Penguin Classics, 2005.
[i] Walking up the stairs in one of the world’s largest bookstores the categories on display on the fourth floor struck me as particularly odd. Whether post-colonialism and post-communism are seen in a comparable light, or whether Eastern Europe is indeed seen as a completely remote part of the world, as far removed as whole continents such as Asia and Africa are, the category in this photo made a lot of sense – it explained the otherness that accompanies the awkward and troubling depiction of the East, but to my admittedly biased mind, in particular of Romania.