THE BRUSSELS bubble is a cosmopolitan place. Its inhabitants are typically well travelled and fluent in a hat-trick of languages. Often, they will have a spouse from another country. Their children attend international schools, in which the playground squeals in a mishmash of French, English, Polish and more. It should be a place where national stereotypes wither, as familiarity breeds content. Instead, Eurocrats, diplomats and hangers-on revel in stereotyping that would make a 1970s sitcom writer blush.
Entire regions are condemned. Given half a chance, bubble-dwellers turn into mini Max Webers, pontificating on the essential differences between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Countries in “Club Med” are portrayed as debt-addicted wasters, while their counterparts in the north are condemned as moralistic misers. Objections from newer member-states are disregarded as adolescent moaning. Good ideas put forward by the original gang of six members are dismissed as Euro-aristocrats lording it over newer arrivals. Officials from some countries are written off with barely a chance. One former EU official pooh-poohed the idea that stereotypes shape thinking in Brussels, before adding later that “everyone” likens the Dutch to female genitalia. The rise of the EU was supposed to iron out such crass distinctions. Instead, at the heart of the project, they stubbornly go on.
Sweeping summaries of near neighbours are nothing new. “French courteous. Spanish lordly. Italian amorous. German clownish” was the verdict from one 17th-century travel guide. Stereotypes are a staple of comedy in every country. Sometimes they are relatively harmless. Tony Blair once had to placate an annoyed Italian prime minister after Britain produced a tie representing EU member-states with Italy as a pizza. (“This is the nation of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Verdi, Firenze, Roma,” Mr Blair recounted the story, in a thick Italian accent. “And here we are on your tie: quattro stagioni.”) But when European politics turn nasty, so do the stereotypes. At the height of the euro crisis, German politicians such as Angela Merkel were portrayed as Nazis in the Greek press. In turn, Mrs Merkel once claimed that the Greeks should simply take fewer holidays to get out of their economic rut.
Despite their ugly side and inaccuracies, stereotypes play a useful role in Brussels. They are a coping mechanism for complexity. In a bloc containing 28 countries and over 500m citizens, broad brush strokes are sometimes necessary. Diplomats, MEPs and staffers are often sent to Brussels only for a short stint, meaning intellectual shortcuts are required to get up to speed. A few useful heuristics make Europe clearer, at least at a glance. Often a policy split genuinely is one between north and south, or between older and newer member-states, whose interests do diverge. If rigidly followed, then these rules can lead an analysis awry. But it is impossible to understand Europe without, at times, being a bit glib.
Stereotypes do more than explain. In Brussels, they can be wielded as a tool or a weapon. A helpful one can aid a Eurocrat’s career. It is better to be seen as overly organised (like the Germans) than a chaotic mess (like the Italians). Being seen as too stingy (like the Dutch) is preferable to being spendthrift (like the Greeks). Though some countries benefit from their national reputation, others suffer. Even senior officials from newer members complain that their ideas are ignored owing to their nationality or that they are held responsible for the sins of their home government, says Tomas Valasek of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. “Whenever I meet a Hungarian I think ‘Orban, Orban, Orban’,” admits one EU wallah, referring to Hungary’s autocratic prime minister. Walter Lippman, the American writer who coined the term, argued that stereotypes are “the defences of our position in society”. In Brussels, a stereotype is a mark of privilege as much as prejudice.
While Eurocrats may dish out stereotypes, they do their best to avoid fulfilling them. One French official admits she is deliberately meek in EU meetings, less it be dismissed as Gallic haughtiness. Before becoming president of the European Central Bank, the Italian Mario Draghi and his allies had to emphasise how un-Italian he was. The process was so successful that Bild, a German tabloid, handed him a Pickelhaube helmet (although they demanded its return when he pursued a more doveish policy). “Les Compromis”, a French thriller set in EU institutions, summed it up, declaring that in Brussels: “Brits are federalists, Italians are punctilious about rules, Germans act like mafiosi and the French are almost modest.”
Those countries blessed with a positive stereotype would do better to cherish it. Stereotypes do shift, as the British have found after Brexit. They used to have a reputation as pragmatic, canny operators in Brussels. Now, British officials find themselves running uphill, their country’s reputation as an increasingly erratic ally now working against them. The standard of British officials has not changed, but the view of them has. It has given rise to a new British stereotype: the self-flagellating British Eurocrat, simultaneously despairing and apologising for his country’s behaviour. It took a real-world shift for the reputation of the British to suffer. After all, the line between stereotype and reality is blurred. The Brits’ new-found reputation came about because they did something that, in the minds of their fellow Eurocrats, was erratic.
Power and prejudice
Sometimes, however, the stereotype can shape reality. Even if politicians and officials in Brussels sealed themselves away from any form of national stereotyping, the voters who put them there are not so isolated, pointed out Tony Connelly, an Irish journalist, in “Don’t Mention the Wars: A Journey through European Stereotypes”. If Dutch voters, however unfairly, believe that a bail-out will be spent on ouzo, then Dutch politicians have a choice: spend a vat of political capital on changing their voters’ minds or join in the Greek-bashing. The Brussels bubble is not always cut off from the views of voters. Sometimes it reflects them all too well. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Why stereotypes rule in Brussels”