Europe: Between east and west, a gulf of stereotypes

Word association.
Word association.
16 July 2012 – IQ The Economist (Vilnius)

In the Netherlands, Eastern Europeans have replaced Muslims as a target of the far right. The hostility is fed by clichés widespread throughout Western Europe, regrets a Lithuanian journalist, who admits that his own countrymen are not free from prejudice.

“Are you having trouble with immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe? We want to hear!” The website of the far-right Dutch party welcomes visitors with this question spiced with encouragement. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and known for his diatribes against Islam and Muslims, has discovered a new vein to mine for the backing of the average Dutch voter. In February his party launched a website designed to gather evidence on the problems caused by “the Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians and other eastern Europeans.”

According to the National Statistics Office of the Netherlands, about 200,000 eastern Europeans settled in the country legally in 2011. The 136,000 Poles make up the majority, followed by 2,708 Lithuanians, 1,885 Latvians and 665 Estonians. In a country of 17 million, this represents just over one percent.

It is intriguing that the far right’s hatred for immigrants who do not respect Western values has switched target. After September 11, Islam and Muslims became the scapegoats for all the ills of society; today, it’s the eastern Europeans who play this role.

A paradoxical situation

Simon Kuper, a Financial Times journalist originally from the Netherlands, sees several reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, the Netherlands tend to limit immigration from outside the borders of the Union, and the number of Moroccans and Turks is decreasing.

Secondly, Muslims integrate more easily. They speak Dutch at home and do not occupy top ranking in the crime statistics. It is not surprising, according to Simon Kuper, that the incomers from central and eastern Europe that arrived en masse in western Europe a few years ago are slowly becoming the “new Muslims”. In Western eyes they’re stamped “post-Soviet”, speak incomprehensible languages, and seem just as foreign as the Turks or the Moroccans.

The footprint of the Cold War continues to divide Europeans from West and East. The latter have become another rhetorical tool for the populists. Discrimination against the eastern Europeans is fed by the fact that they are considered less “European” than western Europeans – less civilised, and less tolerant.

There are clear reasons for this. Unlike Westerners, eastern Europeans are not “politically correct” and ply a rather explosive cocktail of intolerance – hatred of blacks, homophobia and anti-semitism – that has become taboo in the West.

The experience of emigration does not cure the Lithuanians of intolerance. Quite the contrary. Returning home from London, Dublin or the Nordic countries, they tell stories about the blacks, Muslims and other non-Europeans who occupy western Europe, further reinforcing local prejudices. Above all, they do not recognise that they themselves can also be seen as “occupiers” in Western eyes.

It is precisely that racism, homophobia and lack of democracy that western Europeans trot out to justify their differences from eastern Europeans. It is, to say the least, a paradoxical situation that it is in the West where the xenophobia and racism being taken up by nationalist parties is becoming heard ever more loudly.

“The darkness in people's souls”

Euro 2012, which has just ended, was the perfect symbol of this stigmatisation. The Western press seized the opportunity to talk about problems of eastern Europe, reinforcing stereotypes born in the last century. Countless articles were published on racism and anti-semitism in Poland, the working classes in Ukraine and the promiscuous women of eastern Europe.

Before the European Football Championship started, a Dutch television advertisement encouraged women to make sure not to let their men leave for the Ukraine or Poland. “Ladies: sign up for three or five years with the Netherlands energy company and get a free draft-beer dispenser”, suggested a female voice in a conspiratorial tone.

The ad is a clear example of sexism and racism. Eastern European women are presented as Dutch women would never be. No wonder that the Ukrainian activists of FEMEN, famous for their topless public actions, greeted Euro 2012 with the slogan “Ukraine is not a whorehouse”.

Yet this is one of the least nasty stereotypes. In Lviv, journalist Michael Goldfarb of The Guardian claims to have perceived “the darkness in people's souls.” Poland was his target: it was, he wrote, “the centre of the Holocaust”, yet he failed to mention the responsibility of the Nazi regime.

How to change that image in the Europe of today, being shaped by the Union? The answer lies in the hands of the “Polish plumbers” and “easy Ukrainian women”.

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