Painting Eastern Europe in bad light is flogging a dead horse

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The horsemeat saga has prompted the British media to sharpen their knives again. Not so that it can get stuck into a burger, lasagne or some other questionable product spawned by the European-wide food industry, but so it can slice up the reputations of the countries of central and eastern Europe.

The likes of Poland and Romania have long learnt to live under the threatening gaze of the British media, knowing that the first hint of any scandal that could, perhaps, have some implications for the UK populace will have the Press hammering on their doors.

Poland felt this in the run-up to last year’s European football championship when a lurid BBC Panorama documentary painted the country and fellow host Ukraine as bastions of anti-Semitism and racism, and that coloured English fans risked a beating if they travelled.

The documentary triggered a host of copy-cat pieces by the media, but as it turned out the tournament was a great success, unblemished by serious racism.

Now the latent suspicious that central Europe is, in some way, not to be trusted have been heightened by talk in Britain that the country will be swamped by Romanians and Bulgarians once restrictions to the labour market are lifted. This increased the market for stories painting central Europe in a bad light, and fortunately for the market the horsemeat scandal that implicated both Poland and Romania hove into sight.

Journalists were immediately dispatched to the two countries to track down the “sources” of the horsemeat. Along with their notebooks, the writers also brought with them loads of disparaging adjectives to describe what they found. Thus the abattoirs in Romania were described as “grim” and “desolate”, where “knackered old nags” were dispatched in brutal circumstances.

Papers played on the fact that one was built with EU funds and that its owner had connections with the Romanian agriculture minister; thus implying corruption.

But other than coming up with colourful pieces on the Romanian meat industry, they actually returned home with no hard evidence – or any evidence for that matter – of wrong-doing. So, the portrayal of a country as shabby and tainted by the whiff of corruption would have to suffice.

This is not to say that central Europe is a vice-free area. Romania has a huge corruption problem, and Poland has its problems with mafia-style crime and corrupt officials. If it turns out that Poles or Romanian are involved in criminal operations supporting the horsemeat scam, then they should be punished.

But what is wrong is the apparent desire in Britain to use the horsemeat scandal to degenerate countries. Set against the backdrop of immigration there appears to be a willingness to tarnish the reputations of Poland and Romania long before guilt or innocence has been determined.

Along with this, Romanians and Poles get angered by the hypocrisy of it all. From Austria to Spain and to the UK, corruption scandals are mushrooming across Europe but despite this central Europeans are treated with particular suspicion. And, of course, the root of the horsemeat scandal, the European food industry, is not a Romanian or Polish invention but a creation of the West.

l Matthew Day reports for The Scotsman from Warsaw on eastern Europe.