MILAN — When people think of racism and xenophobia in Italy, what comes to mind is usually prejudice toward Arabs, Africans and other easily identifiable minorities. But Romanians have become one of the major targets of xenophobic abuse here — despite the fact that the two countries are both European Union members that have similar languages and cultures.
A high-profile example of that prejudice occurred earlier in April, when a prominent Italian politician falsely accused Romania of exporting almost half of its criminals to Italy, then blamed the European Union for making it possible.
“Italy has imported 40 percent of [their] criminals from Romania. While Romania is importing from Italy our firms and our capital. What an amazing deal the EU is!,” wrote Luigi Di Maio, the vice president of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s parliament, and one of the leading representatives of the populist Five Star Movement, in a controversial Facebook post.
There are currently 1.3 million Romanians living in Italy, making them the largest group of foreign nationals in the country and 22 percent of the total immigrant population. Romanians are drawn by the similarities between their language and Italian and, since Romania joined the EU in 2007, the fact that they don’t need a permit to stay.
Di Maio’s anti-Romanian statement was baseless. In fact, as blogger Luca Sofri has documented, he was distorting statistics issued in 2009 by Romania’s then-justice minister, which showed that 40 percent of fugitive criminals sought by Romanian authorities were hiding in Italy.
But the accusation conforms with widespread prejudice in Italy against immigrants from Eastern Europe. And that resentment, which is increasingly intertwined with opposition to the E.U., has become a hot-button issue in Italian politics. The conservative newspaper Il Giornale, usually critical of M5S, has praised Di Maio for having “told the truth, for once.”
“There is this idea that Romanian men are all thieves and Romanian women are all prostitutes,” said Ana Maria Crainic, a Romanian woman married to an Italian man. The couple now lives in Timisoara, Romania, where Crainic works as a manager, but they used to live in the northern Italian city of Padua. “All these prejudices are one of the reasons I don’t want to go back to Italy,” she explained.
Di Maio is the Five Star Movement’s likely candidate for prime minister in the next general election, which is due in 2018 but could be held earlier. The Five Star Movement, or M5S, is the leading party in opinion polls, having surpassed the ruling Democratic Party.
Manlio Di Stefano, an M5S member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee who was authorized to speak on the party's behalf, told The Post via email that Di Maio's statement does not “preclude [good] relations with the Romanian population, and in particular with those residing in Italy." Di Stefano added that his party supports the idea that "every EU citizen is free to come in Italy, either for tourism or in order to work, as long as they respect the national legal system."
Mihai Mircea Butcovan, a Romanian writer living in the Milan area, said hostility toward Romanians is widespread in Italy and that politicians — regardless of party affiliation — often use that hostility to curry favor with voters.
“I would have never imagined this amount of xenophobia when I moved here in the 1990s, but I guess racism is cyclical,” said Butcovan in a telephone interview. "Twenty years ago, the primary target were the Albanians, then it was the Moroccans. Now I guess it’s our turn."
The Northern League, a xenophobic right-wing party, has campaigned for years against Romanians. But the Five Star Movement, which has vowed to call a referendum on leaving the euro (though not the E.U. entirely) has only occasionally descended into openly xenophobic rhetoric. The fact that the party is now targeting Romanians may signal how intertwined anti-immigrant and anti-E.U. sentiments have become.
It wouldn’t be the first time euroskeptics have boosted popularity for their agenda by stoking resentment against Eastern European immigrants. "People tend to forget that in 2005 the referendum for the European constitution was rejected in France because of the hysteria over the 'Polish plumber,'" noted Anna Zafesova, a Russian journalist living in Milan who works for the newspaper La Stampa, referring to a stereotype of Eastern Europeans supposedly stealing low-wage jobs. Ahead of the Brexit referendum in Britain last year, the Leave campaign was also fueled by warnings about Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants.
Butcovan said he believes attitudes toward Romanians began deteriorating between 2005, when Romania’s E.U. membership was agreed, and 2007, when it became effective. But he says he doesn’t believe there is a direct correlation between anti-E.U. sentiment and prejudice against his people. Instead, he mostly blames the media for spreading the perception that Romanians are criminals.
Yet others say the fears of prejudice are overblown. Simona Olteanu, a Romanian woman working as a housekeeper in the Tuscan town of Forte dei Marmi, said she has never experienced racism in her everyday life. “It’s something that one comes across more on Facebook or with politics,” she said. “I try just not to watch the news.”