As an American somewhat steeped in political correctness, I was shocked when I moved to France in 2001 by how commonly and unashamedly many Europeans invoked shopworn stereotypes of each other. In the era of the expanding European Union and the introduction of the euro, it struck me as incongruous (if not offensive) to hear a luncheon speaker crack jokes about Spaniards taking siestas or to listen as French acquaintances belittled the Swiss and Belgians.
The most central and pervasive European prejudice concerns the north-south divide: that Northern Europeans are serious, industrious, and efficient, while Southern Europeans are passionate, chaotic, and indolent. As with all stereotypes, there are (perhaps uncomfortable) grains of truth in these characterizations. But their perpetuation ignores ample evidence to the contrary found in every European nation, north and south.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the euro crisis is that it has reawakened—and perhaps even exacerbated—this divide. The crisis is centered mainly in Southern Europe, of course, having begun in Greece, spread to Portugal, and now threatening even Italy and Spain. (Ireland is the sole northern country to have sought a bailout.) And the burden of bailing out the “profligate” south will be borne mainly by Germany and other northern countries, so it’s no wonder old attitudes kick in.
Politicians aren’t making matters any better. This week’s Bloomberg Businessweek includes a graphic summarizing some of the insults they’ve hurled each others’ way during the crisis. While most of the quotes aren’t nationalistic in tone, the press has more than filled the gap with its own brand of name-calling, aiming particular scorn at the Greeks.
The invocation of the north-south divide isn’t confined to private asides. In a speech in Dublin on Oct. 27, Irish finance minister Michael Noonan tried to distance his country from Greece. “We have succeeded in the last couple of months in breaking the perception that somehow or another we were some kind of displaced Mediterranean country in the North Atlantic,” he said. “We are not. We are a North European economy.”
The stereotyping also isn’t limited to Europeans. American bloggers have had a field day criticizing coddled Europeans. (The brush strokes tend to be fairly broad.) Pravda’s Web site carries an article that playfully refers to Greece as “the kingdom of lazy people.” And Taiwan’s Next Media Animation put its own distinctive spin on the euro zone crisis with a new video about the proposed (and now abandoned) Greek referendum on the country’s latest bailout plan. It’s loaded with stereotypes—but demands leeway because it’s satire.
The damage to attitudes and perceptions in Europe may take as long to fix as the continent’s financial situation.