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30/06/2017 at 15:18 #12335
Romania’s image has taken a battering in the British press and our survey found it the EU country Britons would least like to live in. Carole Cadwalladr returns to Bucharest after 20 years to find a city transformed.
So, the good news, I tell the first Romanian I interview, is that a British newspaper wants to print a story about Romania that isn’t about immigrants stealing their jobs or Gypsy beggars getting their teeth fixed free on the NHS. And the bad news, he asks? I pause. That, according to the Observer’s survey, most Brits believe that Romanians come to Britain to steal our jobs and get their teeth fixed on the NHS.
In fact, the survey doesn’t say that, exactly, but it’s not far off. It says that of all the countries in Europe in which we would least like to live, the very worst place – cited by a massive 25% of all respondents, leaps and bounds ahead of anywhere else – is Romania. That as a nation, we believe Romanians are “aggressive” and “lazy”. That hardly any of us have actually been there (fewer than 1% in the last five years). And a massive 58% of us believe that Romania is one of the five EU nations that has sent the most migrants to the UK.
Which may give some clue as to what’s going on here. Because it turns out that not only do we know hardly anything about Romania but what we do know isn’t even true. In fact, there are fewer than 100,000 Romanians in Britain. (Compared with nearly 700,000 Poles, for example). Figures from 2014 show that fewer than 2,500 of them claimed benefits here. They are overwhelmingly net contributors to the British economy.
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To say that Romania has had a poor press in Britain is a bit like saying that Nicolae Ceauşescu was slightly to the left of Jeremy Corbyn. But then, at a hip cafe in downtown Bucharest, Cristian Lupşa, the editor of a pioneering magazine, Decât o Revistă, reminds me of the press coverage that accompanied the news that Romanians and Bulgarians were going to be allowed to work in Britain in January of last year. “It was crazy. There was this panic that the Romanians would invade.”
It seems like a long time ago given what has happened in Europe since, but at the time the threat of a tidal wave of Romanian immigrants dominated headlines for months, prompting outpourings from Nigel Farage, questions in the Commons, and an entire primetime Channel 4 series, which sparked protests outside the British embassy in Bucharest.
“It had this very alarmist title,” Lupşa says. “The Romanians Are Coming – and it really played on these stereotypes. They followed this very poor man who had nine kids and didn’t speak English who came to try and find work in Britain. They weren’t really looking for the people who are creating branding campaigns in London.”
I catch up on the first episode when I’m back in Britain and I see what he means. It features Gypsy beggars and a man getting his teeth fixed on the NHS. There was an attempt at some balance, but balance in the TV sense, so it included an episode on a Romanian princess.
But then, there’s the basic confusion in Britain over who Romanians actually are, Lupşa tells me. Most people in Britain don’t understand the difference between Roma people – Gypsies – and Romanians – citizens of Romania. The two are endlessly conflated and confused not least because many Roma are Romanians – the country is home to the biggest population in Europe. “A lot of people here get angry when some Roma go abroad and something bad happens. They feel like they are giving the country a bad name. It speaks to some deep prejudices that exist here. Racism and embedded prejudice.”
In fact, Britain is just late to the party on this one. For centuries, all over Europe, Roma have been despised, discriminated against, excluded and, in the second world war, exterminated. In some ways we’re just playing catch-up. Do we really have such a negative view of Romanians? Or, have we just acquired one of Europe’s most ancient prejudices? Is it Gypsy-bashing by another name?
Andrei Tarnea, the director of the Aspen Institute in Romania.
Andrei Tarnea, the director of the Aspen Institute in Romania. Photograph: avocatura.com
Whatever it is, it makes Andrei Tarnea uncomfortable. He’s the director of the Aspen Institute in Romania, an American nonprofit group, but tells me how he started out working in the foreign ministry in the 1990s. “And these very nice people who I came to know very well – very ordinary, decent people – displayed this very casual antisemitism all the time.”
It struck Tarnea because, though they didn’t know it, he is a Jew, one of very few left in Romania – those who weren’t killed in the Holocaust left in communist times. “One of my biggest fears is that the anti-Roma sentiment in Europe today very strongly mirrors what was going in the 1930s.”
He’s something of a passionate European, Tarnea, and he’s already been talking fluently on the subject for an hour but he also can’t keep the agitation out of his voice. “It’s not just the things that Ukip says, or the Front National in France, but mainstream publications too. You hear the same discourse about foreigners, Romanians etc. And the gusto with which certain politicians use it for political ends, it’s very similar. Don’t forget that the first fascist government in Europe wasn’t Germany; it was, like now, in Hungary.
“It might sound ridiculous. But I have this almost irrational belief – well, it’s not irrational, it’s actually perfectly rational – that certain toxic ideas take on a life of their own. I feel Europe is at a turning point. And Britain staying in or [going] out may be a defining factor.”
It’s striking how many Romanians are well informed on Brexit. But then, the idea of voluntarily exiting the union in which they were only recently accepted is preposterous. “It would be ridiculous for us. We were not part of Europe for 50 years,” an investment banker called Matei Paun tells me. “To be very blunt, it just seems that in Britain there’s a considerable amount of hubris and arrogance involved. It’s a very myopic view of the world and what’s happening.”
Of course, the idea that Romanians love Europe will simply reinforce the idea, for some people, that you’re living high on the hog, and we’re paying for it, I say.
“That’s because it’s never been properly explained that Romania’s 20 million consumers is a good thing for UK firms, let alone 100 million eastern Europeans.”
But then, history – and the traumatic effects of Europe’s recent history – is a whole lot closer to the surface in Romania than it is Britain. It’s still dealing with the consequences of the second world war and its aftermath in very direct ways. Philip Ó Ceallaigh, an Irish writer who lives in Bucharest, tells me how different those born in the 1990s are from the generation that preceded them. “They have no idea. Which is great. They are healthy. They really are no different from young people in western Europe whereas their parents are a different species. They were totally traumatised and still are to a degree.”
Philip Ó Ceallaigh, an Irish writer based in Bucharest. ‘You can live very comfortably here on not much money.’
Philip Ó Ceallaigh, an Irish writer based in Bucharest. ‘You can live very comfortably here on not much money.’ Photograph: revistaartesimeserii.ro
I know what he means. I went to Romania in the winter of 1991, and of all the post-Soviet hellholes I visited during that period, the country seemed stuck in a different category of bleakness. I’ve never been anywhere where people just looked so beaten down and depressed. One of the saddest people I’ve ever encountered was a small boy on a Bucharest metro train who came barefoot into our carriage and played what sounded like a funeral dirge on his violin.
But the city really has changed. Its 19th-century buildings have been spruced up, you can take an English-speaking Uber driver instead of fighting to the death over the fare with a chain-smoking taxi driver, and then there are the hipsters. “Pulled pork has arrived,” Lupşa tells me.
Ó Ceallaigh went in the 1990s when such things appeared to be impossible fantasies and has been there more or less ever since. “I knew I wanted to be a writer and there’s no way I could afford to be one in Dublin. You can live very comfortably here on not much money.” He’s just published an essay in Granta about the Bucharest that Ceauşescu swept away – a third of the old city was bulldozed, six square kilometres, home to 57,000 people, including the entire Jewish quarter.
“It seems like it’s quite a frivolous debate in Britain. Britain doesn’t really need the EU and the EU doesn’t really need Britain. It wasn’t ruined by the 20th century in the way that most of the rest of Europe, and all of eastern Europe was. People tend to overlook how the EU came into existence. Everyone was killing each other and the continent was in ruins. It’s given us a generation of peace. Countries that were at war in the 1990s – in the former Yugoslavia – no longer are. Without the EU, Romania would have gone the way of Russia or Egypt. There was no institutional basis for democracy.”
Ó Ceallaigh’s new book is on European writers of the interwar period – all Jewish – when Bucharest, a multicultural city nicknamed the “Paris of the east” bloomed, and he’s been immersed in the period. “The thing, as now, is that people took it for granted. They lived in an enlightened culture and they simply couldn’t envisage the kind of regimes that followed. We live in a similarly enlightened culture and we can’t conceive it either.”
Later, I walk around Bucharest talking to young people involved in the creative arts – all over Bucharest there are people doing interesting things and they all tell me how much easier it is to do things here, how much more impact they can have, how dynamic the city is in some ways compared to western Europe – and it takes me a good 20 minutes to walk along the pavement that runs the length of the parliament building, the monstrous palace that Ceauşescu built that was the centrepiece of his new city.
Ceauşescu’s monumental parliament building in Bucharest.
Ceauşescu’s monumental parliament building in Bucharest. Photograph: Alamy
It’s still as grim as I remember it being. A daily reminder of what happens when you get caught on the wrong side of history. It’s not surprising that the debate about Europe looks so different from here. Just look at the neighbours: a collapsing Ukraine is right next door. “I think Europe is losing its soul,” Andrei Tarnea tells me. “In Britain, the discussion stops at the wallet and the ballot box.” The questions simply look bigger from here.
There’s a lone tourist taking a photograph of the palace. Because while the city has its attractions and there’s been some hopeful talk of Bucharest being the new Berlin, nobody I meet actually manages to say it with a straight face, and most tourists head straight to Transylvania, home to Dracula, and also, intermittently, Prince Charles. He owns a couple of guesthouses there and has set up a Romanian foundation. John Akeroyd, a naturalist who has accompanied him on his forays into the Romanian countryside, tells me that “it’s the last place in Europe that has the same extensive landscape that existed in the 18th century or even medieval times. It’s probably why Prince Charles likes it. It’s like the Cotswolds would have been in the 18th century.”
But then according to Michael Bird, an English journalist who runs an investigative website based in Bucharest, Romania tends to “inspire two extreme reactions in the British press. Either it’s a hellhole for the rightwing press. Or it has this mysterious romanticism. It’s where the middle ages meets totalitarianism. Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Game of Thrones.”
Back in London, in my local coffee shop, I chat to the only Romanian I know, Mike – actually Mihai – the friendly barista. Is it true we have a negative view of Romanians? “You do but it’s understandable.” Understandable? “People see these guys begging. Who wants that? On the other hand, it’s mostly ignorance. People say, ‘They’re taking our jobs!’ Dude, if you want the job, it’s yours. Come and do it.”