I've just been given The Ambassador's Diploma for promoting Romania's image in the British Media. What?! Has anyone ever promoted Romania in the British media? Er. Well. Precisely. As the acerbic journalist Angela Epstein pointed out on BBC Radio 5 Live, "There can't have been much competition for that!"
Placing positive articles about Romania in the press is challenging. The current climate is not conducive to bucolic tales of Moldavian churches and (ahem) horse-drawn carts. We Brits are otherwise occupied with the state of our own backyard. Our tabloid press incessantly rages that something must be done to curb immigration levels and with Ukip's tail wagging the political dog, our coalition government heartily agrees. What constitutes 'too many immigrants' is subjective but the statistics are impressive: between 1997 and 2012 net immigration stood at around the four million mark. We have witnessed a veritable flood of predominantly well-educated, multi-lingual Europeans into the British job market. The numbers took everyone by surprise. Britain had underestimated the levels of frustration and poverty in former Eastern-bloc countries: millions of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks etc queued in our job centres, started up construction companies and filled many of the undesirable menial gaps in our (then) booming economy. Meanwhile their polite smiling faces and extraordinary work ethic left us with some awkward questions about our own home-grown labour force.
And now the Romanians and Bulgarians are set to follow suit. Or are they? The truth is no one really knows how many will arrive in Britain once the employment restrictions are lifted in 2014. But that hasn't stopped mass hysteria, with bias reporting and cynical politicking focusing on anecdotal tales of squatters, gypsies and benefit tourists. Romania in particular comes in for a drubbing on an almost daily basis. Unlike Poland, with Romania there is no collective guilt over the Second World War, and in contrast to France and Italy, Britain's shared cultural connections with this former communist country are few and far between. Regardless, a spurious idea of Romanian 'otherness' has taken hold in the public's imagination. Forget the reality; this large, educated nation has been reduced to a few inflammatory stereotypes. Even the word Romanian is all too often enunciated through a sneer.
Last week I met the Romanian Ambassador, Dr Ion Jinga. He is a mild-mannered intelligent man for whom the verbal onslaught against his country has been painful. "What can you do about the Daily Mail and the Express?" Fight back, Dr Jinga! There's nothing else you can you do. And he did, the very next day on BBC Radio 5 Radio. He complained about "this not only negative but sometimes xenophobic and even racist media coverage". BBC presenter Nicky Campbell challenged him, "Racist is a very strong word". "Yes", insisted the ambassador, "because you'll see that they speak of hordes of criminals, they speak about waves of peoples and gangs that come to flood your streets, it's not true". Go Dr Jinga!
So-called liberal multicultural Britain is bullying one of the poorest countries in Europe. We have conveniently forgotten how far Romania has come in the last 23 years - from communist hell-hole to fledgling democracy. Instead out press gleefully focuses on their most disadvantaged minority, the Roma, and rarely (ever?) acknowledges the nine thousand doctors and nurses who work in our NHS (at the expense of their own). The onslaught is cruel and misplaced. Word travels fast and now EVERYONE in Romania knows the employment restrictions are being lifted next year. Britain has scored a massive own-goal. Do we really believe our rude (nay racist) diatribes coupled with David Cameron's puny threats against "benefit tourists" will put prospective immigrants off? Get real! You don't take a big decision like leaving your country on the basis of a tabloid headline or a piece of political puff.
Understandably some Romanians are hurt and bewildered by our behaviour. However it is nothing new. Western Europe's need to define itself in the face of Eastern Europe (a cultural construct) has been going on since the Enlightenment. To appear dominant and progressive - economically or otherwise - requires less developed neighbours, all the better if they are also European. In contemporary Britain, threatened by a triple-dip recession, many don't feel able to cope with a fresh wave of migration. But rather than be honest about the inadequacies of our economy and infrastructure we find it easier to attack the very people in Europe who have yet to commit that terrible crime of working en masse in the UK. By picking on Romania, under-performing Britain is desperately trying to feel better about itself. Shame on us for allowing it to happen.