As the Eurozone crisis grinds on, stereotypes have emerged as the EU’s only truly reliable currency. Hardly a day goes by without some new crisis-summit at which hoary old national prejudices are trotted out.
It’s an odd turn of events given that the current crop of European leaders was elected precisely because they didn’t fit the mould. France has an exhibitionist president with a Hungarian surname. Germany’s chancellor is a woman from the east. The UK has elected as Prime Minister an old Etonian in an age when nobody thought this possible any more.
Yet, as soon as they set foot in Brussels, these same leaders seem to make a virtue of conforming to their own national stereotype. Sarkozy puffs himself up into the pint-sized Frenchman with expansive plans; Merkel becomes the cool, calculating German; Cameron is the slippery and inscrutable Englishman.
What’s more, our politicians have been giving vent to some distinctly stereotypical views about one another as well. If southern member states are suffering from the financial crisis, northerners mutter, it’s because they are feckless and lazy. If northerners have their books in order, reply southerners, it is only because they are so uptight. And both northerners and southerners seem to view easterners as sponges, out for what they can get.
The advent of eurostereotyping will be music to the ears of sociologists. In their theory of ‘system justification’, sociologists have plotted out the four easy-to-follow steps by which people use stereotypes to create new hierarchies and inequalities. According to the theory, even individuals disadvantaged by a political system will uphold it if presented with a sufficiently appealing stereotype. EU politicians are shaping up to be a pretty neat case study.
Step 1: group-building. Being part of an in-group is cosy. Members tend to be forgiving of one another. They will write off as anomalous bad behaviour by a partner whilst viewing the negative behaviour of outsiders as confirmation of their general uselessness. The desire to be part of the EU’s in-group would explain why our leaders have been loudly communicating their northern credentials.
Step 2: justification. According to the theory, we all need to believe that the world is a fair place. Members of an in-group therefore look for reasons why disadvantaged outsiders deserve their poor treatment. Northern EU states paint southerners as feckless, lazy and wholly deserving of their situation.
Step 3: collusion. Even people disadvantaged by a political system want to believe in its fairness. So they rely on stereotypes to justify their position at the bottom of the pile. Southerners who wish to feel better can thus tell themselves their situation is the result of a desirable Mediterranean lifestyle choice – better than being an uptight northerner.
Step 4: denial. Insiders cannot forever ignore the fact that outsiders exhibit many of the same talents and strengths as them. But faced with this challenge, the in-group won’t do the obvious thing and rethink its prejudices – that would mean giving up its own privileged status. Instead the in-group will persuade itself that the challengers are shallow and ambitious. Irked by easterners’ claims to be good and reliable Europeans, northerners will paint them as shallow upstarts only interested in sponging off the EU.
Our leaders, then, are well on their way to becoming stereotypical stereotypers. Or at least they seem to be. Yet, sociologists are also keen to point out that not all stereotyping is negative and inaccurate. When social systems expand to take on a large number of lesser-known members or when events become too complex to handle, stereotyping is an indispensable mental crutch – a shortcut for processing fast-moving situations.
In other words, in the wake of EU enlargement and the financial crisis, the prejudices which the EU’s northerners, southerners and easterners are developing about one another may be perfectly accurate – a useful mental crutch. And in that case, we really are in trouble.