Why has Romania got such a bad public image?


The Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has defended his country after a wave of negative reporting about it in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Why does it have a bad public image?

Of course, it had to be Romania.

You could almost sense the relief for some when, in the midst of the horsemeat scandal, the finger of blame was pointed at abattoirs in an eastern European state.

Now it made sense. Cue stock footage of Gypsy horse and carts and knowing references to organised crime.

Except, of course, there is no evidence that any horsemeat left Romania labelled as anything other than horsemeat.

But slurs about horsemeat are just the latest in a long line of public relations problems to have hit Romania.

Media caption,
Students and young professionals from Romania talk about living and working in the UK - and whether they plan to return home

The country's Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, has this week been forced to launch an all-out charm offensive over fears about a flood of immigrants when the EU opens its labour market to his country, and neighbouring Bulgaria, on 1 January 2014.

Headlines such as "The Mafia bosses who can't wait to flood Britain with beggars", "We want to get into your country before someone locks the door" and "An immigration calamity looms" have incensed Romanians living in the UK.

On Friday, the country's ambassador to London, Ion Jinga, claimed such "alarmist" and "inflammatory" coverage could lead to Romanians being assaulted in the street.

He argues that all the Romanians who want to work in the UK are already there, on work permits or self-employed.

In an article in the Times, the Romanian prime minister strikes a more emollient tone, inviting Britons to come and enjoy a "strong pint" in Bucharest's Old Town or a "quiet holiday" in the sleepy Transylvanian villages beloved by Prince Charles.

Improved job rates in Romania mean that "Britain can rest assured", he writes.

This argument cuts little ice with Migration Watch chairman, former diplomat Sir Andrew Green, who says the presence of a settled Romanian population in the UK is a "pull factor" that will encourage more to make the journey.

The press has seized on a report by Migration Watch claiming 50,000 Romanians a year will travel to the UK when working restrictions are lifted.

Migration Watch's chairman cites events from 2004, when the government grossly under-estimated the number of migrants that would travel from new EU states such as Poland. The government said there would be net immigration of between 5,000 and 13,000 a year. In fact, 2011 Census data showed the Polish population alone had risen in England and Wales from 58,000 in 2001 to 579,000 10 years later.

Romania has been trying to reshape its image for some time. The government has launched a number of advertising and PR campaigns in recent years aimed at improving the country's perception abroad.

In 2011, it launched a global "Why I Love Romania" poster campaign, trumpeting the achievements of famous Romanians such as tennis player Ilie Nastase, gymnast Nadia Comanenci and scientist Nicolae Paulescu, who discovered insulin.

Last year, it launched a campaign to attract more tourists to the Carpathian Mountains, which was much mocked in the Romanian press.

Image caption,
Did stories about horsemeat play up to prejudices about Romania?

And a Romanian ad agency, GMP, has produced tongue-in-cheek ads hitting back at, so far unfounded, claims that the UK is considering a campaign to deter Romanians from coming to the UK.

The proposed Why Don't You Come Over? campaign in Romania features slogans such as "We speak better English than anywhere you've been in France" and "Charles bought a house here in 2005. And Harry has never been photographed naked once."

The campaign slogan is: "We may not like Britain, but you will love Romania."

Ronnie Smith, a British business consultant based in Romania, says the UK "ought to be ashamed" of its coverage of Romania but he does not believe the country's government has the resources, or the will, to respond effectively.

"There is not a rebranding campaign. There should be but there won't be, not to the extent that's needed," he says.

Romania's image problem may even be traceable to the late 19th Century, when travellers returned from Transylvania with tales of a strange, forbidding land, says Dr James Koranyi, a history lecturer at Durham University.

"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," writes Koranyi in an article for Open Democracy.

But most observers believe Romania's recent past, as a Communist dictatorship, looms far larger in the public mind.

For many people in the West, images of children abandoned in Soviet-era orphanages are the first thing they associate with Romania, says Liam Lever, a British journalist who writes for English-language Romanian news site Romania Insider.

Like other members of the growing expatriate British community in Romania, he believes outdated stereotypes are holding the country back.

"When you say you are going to Romania, people look at you with shock and horror, as if you are going to some place where there is no law and order and bandits roaming in the hills.

"The reality is something quite different."

Like its smaller neighbour Bulgaria, Romania remains one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, according to Transparency International, despite EU-inspired efforts to clean up its political system.

It has also been singled out for criticism by Amnesty International for its prejudicial treatment of the Roma community, which the organisation says makes up as much as 10% of the country's population. (The Romanian 2011 census puts the figure at just over 3%.)

Image caption,
There is poverty in Romania but the economy is growing...

Little wonder, say critics, that the Roma have relocated in their thousands to other EU countries, including the UK.

There have been newspaper stories in the UK pointing to Romanian involvement in certain type of crime, with allegations that 92% of cash machine scams are carried out by nationals. Ten Romanian police officers were sent to London last year to help tackle begging and anti-social behaviour

But Romania's image as a violent "mafia state" among some commentators is far wide of the mark, its defenders point out.

Violent crime in Bucharest is among the lowest of any capital city in Europe, according to figures compiled by The UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The country's economy is also growing faster than the UK and there are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs, according to the British business people based there.

Ambassador Jinga has said the 68,000 Romanians already living in the UK are the best advert for his country.

The vast majority are aged under 35 and are in highly skilled or shortage professions. Six thousand are studying at British universities.

Image caption,
... and wages have risen

Brought up on idealised images of the West, they are bemused, and in some cases, angry at the British media's portrayal of their country.

Unlike Poland, which forged close ties with the UK during World War II, Romania had few links with the UK before the fall of Communism.

"We do have very different cultures," says Carmen Campeanu, a project manager at the Romanian Cultural Centre, in Central London. "We are a Latin country. Statistics show Romanians would prefer to go to Italy or Spain or Portugal or even France."

Stefan Rusud, a 24-year-old management student, says the media storm over immigration has not changed his view of the UK, a country he has always regarded as "a temple of democracy".

Adrian Cherciu, who runs a business importing Romanian food, says he has had to put up with a lot of horsemeat jokes from his British friends in recent weeks.

But he is not worried by "anti-Romanian" press coverage, as it does not fit with his own experience as a British resident and, since 2004, the owner of Romani Online, a website for Romanians in the UK.

"There is no prejudice based on your colour, your religion or nationality," he says.

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