I wonder what people would have said ten years ago when asked to describe a Romanian or Bulgarian. Perhaps some highly-informed people would have muttered darkly about Ceaucescu (Romania) or poisoned umbrellas (Bulgaria), mentioned Romania's origins as a Roman military veterans' resettlement colony (which is why Romanian is so close to Latin) or noted that even by the standards of the USSR, these countries were extremely repressive.
Now of course, thanks to the viciousness of the tabloid press and the briefings of the government, we all know that millions of Bulgarians and Romanians are riding donkeys to Dover ready to rob the UK blind both individually and via the benefits system. Don't we? That's certainly the impression given by the media which is happy to lie, distort and mislead in pursuit of a readership apparently consisting of paranoid, reactionary, gullible fools. Apparently it's perfectly OK for millions of British people to fan out across Europe in search of sun and cheap housing, but not for anyone else.
People of Britain: get over yourselves. Yes, life here can be great, but (and I hate to have to say this to you), your international reputation is rather poor. Having spent 400 years invading and ransacking other people's countries, and the last 50 bombing and subverting them whenever the US clicks its fingers, Abroad has formed the impression that life in the UK is just Not All That.
I've worked with, socialised with and lived with Romanians and Bulgarians for many years. Emigrants are usually a society's pioneers: hard-working, committed and determined. No doubt we see the best of a country's population when we associate with their exiles. Sure, they aren't perfect: at least one Romanian I know objects to the Daily Mail's coverage because it depicts 'Gypsies, not Romanians', which suggests – to put it mildly – that Romania has its own racial divisions too. It's weird, too. The Daily Express, Daily Mail and Telegraph are all huge supporters of the 'hard-working families' doing their best… as long as they aren't foreign. They're also big fans of the British Empire too, which was little more than heavily-armed illegal immigration on a global scale.
But why is the British press so racist (and stupid and opportunist, of course)? Does it really think so little of its readers that it can just airily ascribe this country's problems to 'them'? Are British people totally uninterested in the messy, complex, interesting realities of life in other countries? Sadly, they probably are: at least one of my local students had never heard of Wales, which can be glimpsed from the top floor of my office block. Even more shamefully, the tabloids are owned by the kind of people they disapprove of: Murdoch is an American citizen of Australian origin, the Telegraph's owners live like Bond baddies on a (tax-free) Channel Island. The Daily Mail's owner is French (but only for tax purposes) while Richard Desmond of the Express is a leading member of the Jewish community and should know better about how migrants and religious minorities have been treated. In particular, the above headline ('Now Muslims Get Their Own Laws In Britain) could just as easily be applied to Jews: Jewish courts are recognised by the British legal system, which I generally think is a good thing. Shame Mr Desmond can't extend this to Islamic citizens.
This is probably why there's not a single report in the UK press about the so-called 'Bulgarian Spring', going on right now after Plamen Goranov set himself alight in protest at the government's corruption and incompetence. But that doesn't suit the narrative. Let's just perpetuate vicious, mean stereotypes, egged on by politicians who know that the way to retain power is to appeal to the electorate's lowest impulse. What a way to run a country.
Good article on Bulgaria, immigration discourse and media filters here, by one of our graduates. With thanks to BC for the tip.