Brussels/Rome, April 24 (Inditop) Slovenian footballers had an unusual welcome when they visited Belgium for a friendly game Feb 1. As they stood to attention before the kick-off, the hosts honoured them with the national anthem – of Slovakia.
“We still of course see these mistakes from time to time,” Slovakia’s ambassador to the EU, Maros Sefcovic, told DPA. “Experts and politicians here in Brussels are able to tell the difference, but I know that for the general public this is still rather confusing.”
“I keep on coming across a great lack of knowledge, and I find that sad,” said Guenter Verheugen, who as EU enlargement commissioner from 1999 to 2004 ushered 10 new members, including Slovakia and Slovenia into the bloc five years ago.
It is not just Slovakia and Slovenia. Diplomats from Latvia and Lithuania regularly have to explain that there is a difference between them – and that they are from the Baltic, not the Balkans.
Nowhere has such ignorance coupled with problems of national stereotyping been more pronounced than in Italy, whose citizens, opinion polls suggested, had long favoured European unity, but where a nasty backlash set in over the EU’s eastward expansion.
As their country had for decades been a place from where people emigrated to seek a better life elsewhere, Italians only began confronting immigration from the late 1980s.
A steady trickle of North Africans and Filipinos and later East Europeans began arriving in Italy to fill mostly menial jobs in what had by then become the world’s sixth largest economy.
But tipping the scale was Romania’s entry into the EU in January 2007 when in just over a year the number of Romanians in Italy more than tripled, from 300,000 to over a million – making Romanians the country’s largest immigrant community.
Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once fondly referred to Romania as “our Latin sister” – a reference to the country’s Romance language heritage and other cultural affinities with Italy – but the attitude of many Italians these days is very different.
For many the watershed was the October 2007 savage beating and subsequent death of an Italian naval officer’s wife, Giovanna Reggiani, 47, near a shanty settlement on the outskirts of Rome mostly inhabited by ethnic Roma.
The brutal assault occurred amid growing criticism by the country’s then right-wing opposition led by Silvio Berlusconi, that the centre-left government was not doing enough about crime and illegal immigration.
The subsequent arrest of Romanian immigrant and ethnic Roma, Nicolae Mailat, for Reggiani’s murder sparked a reaction that shed light on Italy’s prejudices.
Large parts of the media and many politicians used interchangeably – and erroneously – the words: Romanian, Slav, Rom (the Italian term for ethnic Roma), “extra-comunitario” (a term used to describe non-EU citizens) when referring to Mailat, and what they implied he represented – the immigrant threat to Italians’ safety.
Some spectators at football stadiums around Italy have had no qualms about making sweeping statements.
“Gypsy! Thief!” they shout at Romanian international star-striker Adrian Mutu – who is not of Roma heritage – when accusing him of pretending to be fouled to steal a free-kick for his Italian team, Fiorentina.
Still, some hard statistics as well as uncanny admissions from Romanian officials have given some credence to Italian concerns that the country is in the grip of a crime wave in which newly-arrived Romanians play a large part.
Of a total of 22,000 foreign inmates in Italian prisons, 2,792 are Romanian. Romanians top the list of those accused of violent crimes, including 8.7 percent of all rapes committed and 4.1 percent of murders, according to the interior ministry.
Romanian Justice Minister Catalin Preodiu even admitted that some 40 percent of Romanians who are wanted under international arrest warrants are believed to be in Italy.
However, officials in Bucharest also accused Italy of stoking anti-Romanian sentiments in February 2009, after a high profile rape case involving Romanians prompted several attacks by Italian so-called vigilante groups against Romanian-owned shops.
“If an extraterrestrial lands on earth and were to ask me in what Romanians are specialised in, I’d reply ‘rape’,” said Senator Piergiorgio Stiffoni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League, a key ally of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s conservative
Experts say that problems arising from national stereotyping are an inevitable part of the EU’s integration process, and that they will fade with time.
But with the EU reeling from economic crisis, and clear signs of “enlargement fatigue” in many old members, that time does not look likely to come soon.
“When I came here I was asked by one very experienced and senior official how long we would need to feel at ease in the EU. I told him in five to six years, and he started to laugh,” Sefcovic said.
“Now I understand why, because I know that we definitely need more time,” he said.