31st Mar 2023


National stereotyping - the eurozone's other story

  • "Does everybody follow the rules in the north, No. Does everybody break them in the south, No" (Photo: Søren Sigfusson/

"I cannot downplay the shock that the Greek debt-crisis has caused with my Finnish electorate that believes in fair play and following the rules." So said Finnish Europe Minister Alexander Stubb recently.

He went on: "The EU rarely provokes an emotional reaction among Finns - this time is different. For us this is not really about money, but principles." As Stubb tells it, it was simply an anathema to Finns that Greece massaged its books in order to qualify for entering the single currency - an act that eventually led to the eurozone's current crisis.

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His comments, made to a student audience in Bruges, were a personal assessment of a Finnish view of the world. They are very much at the benign end of a narrative that has run the course of the eurozone crisis.

Under the extreme version of the narrative, northern Europeans are depicted as hard-working, law-abiding people who live within their means. Southern Europeans are presented as work-shy, rule-bending and profligate.

Statistics show that Greeks actually work more hours than their northern cousins - the real issue is productivity and competitiveness - but the myth is hard to dislodge.

Meanwhile, imprecise discourse means today's ordinary Greeks get lumped together with the corrupt officials and politicians who put and maintained their country on the debt course.

As the eurozone crisis continues to drag on. The effects of the labelling are hardening.

"These latent stereotypes and prejudices - they always existed. Not only from the north to the south, but also from the south to the north," says Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt.

It has become more serious with the crisis, she adds, with newspapers in Greece and elsewhere reopening old wounds by depicting Germans as Nazis.

As a native Italian, Corazza Bildt can see the debate from both sides. Tough economic reform is needed, she agrees, but for that you have to bring the people with you.

"If I was telling you: 'You don't pay taxes, you enjoy the sun while I work and, in any case, whatever we do, you will throw away the money. It's not even worth trying to save you because you're hopeless.' If for three years you would only hear that - how would you feel? You would feel like a non-person."

Greek MEP Sylvana Rapti says the stereotypes of Greek being lazy are "untrue."

"I don’t feel well with this debate. Everybody is working. And everyone is working hard," she says.

Ioannis Tsoukalas, a compatriot in the parliament, says that he is not "excusing the extreme mismanagement of Greece" but "dividing humans - this stereotyping - it makes me feel great disappointment."

"Of course I will not retaliate. That would be bullshit because the Germans, for 600 years, have been producing civilization, science, literature, philosophy and technology."

The north-south cultural stereotyping has featured in high political decisions.

Much of the debate last year on who should succeed Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the European Central Bank focused not just on nationality, but purported national traits.

German commentators deliberated on whether the bank could really be headed by an Italian, with the muttered implication that Italians cannot be trusted with hard earned northern money. In the event, Italy's Mario Dragi, took the post. A turning point in his campaign came when the Bild tabloid, Germany's best selling daily, deemed Draghi "rather German, even a true Prussian."

Similar praise has since been bestowed on Mario Monti - the technocrat parachuted in to save Italy from going the same way as Greece.

Swedish MEP Gunnar Hokmark says such labeling is "serious and problematic. Because we are risking creating a new rift in Europe."

He adds: "There is another risk and that is establishing a belief in southern Europe and in northern Europe that things are as they are, for geographical reasons or these archetypes."

Indeed Sweden, Denmark and Finland all had basket-case economies in the 1990s. All three countries then undertook harsh measures to get them back on track.

Today, the countries regularly top transparency and anti-corruption indices. They do well in education and competitiveness leagues. Their economic models are cited as good examples to follow.

When the Danes took over the EU presidency at the beginning of the year, they were keen to tell visiting journalists about "flexicurity" - a social welfare model that combines social security with a flexible, easy to hire and fire workforce.

But, says Hokmark, it is important that the past is not forgotten: "Sweden was in a deep crisis in the 1990s and we are of course proud that we were able to get out of it. But we also have to remember that we got into in the first place."

Angry Finland

Of the three countries Nordic countries, it is euro member Finland where the debate over the merits of bailing out Greece has raged hardest.

Elaborating on his comments from late last year, Finland's Stubb says: "We shouldn't over exaggerate the cultural difference between the north and the south. We can all find national stereotypes and I think they are actually quite fun if we don't take ourselves too seriously."

He adds: "But there is a certain sentiment and a feeling among the electorate in some of the northern countries that if there are rules you should stick to them. So the northern countries are quite a rule-based society and there is nothing probably more important for a lot of people."

This sense of anger resulted in a changed political landscape following elections last year. The True Finns, a nationalist party

running on an anti-bailout platform, swept up 19.1 percent of the vote - their biggest win since the party's foundation 17 years ago.

True Finn MEP Sampo Terho says it is "common" among Finns to claim that rules are not upheld in southern countries. "This is causing a lot of people to be annoyed - even though it is hearsay and hard to prove."

Terho indicates that Finnish politicians in favour of bailing out Greece do not dare to speak of solidarity. Instead, they urge Finns to accept sending money southward because it is ultimately better for Finland if Greece finds its feet again.

Wrong divide

Janis Emmanouilidis, an economist at the European Policy Centre, reckons the north south narrative is the wrong way of looking at the crisis.

A Greek-German, and in that sense well-placed to watch the two countries displaying some of the most bitter rhetoric during the eurozone debate, Emmanouilidis suggests that it is more about who feels immune from the crisis and who does not.

'Northern' in the context of the eurozone crisis has not only referred to geographic location but also whether a country is viewed well by the markets - something Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg can all claim.

"Look at the Austrian example," says Emmanouilidis, "you would probably say they are part of the north. When they lost their triple-A [credit rating] and when they came under strong pressure because of their banks' exposure to central and eastern Europe, then suddenly there was more understanding for the situation in Greece."

Meanwhile, even the best in the class are not beyond reproach. All three Nordic countries were part of a group of 12 EU countries singled out by the European Commission earlier this month as being at risk of a future economic crisis.

"Does everybody follow the rules in the north, No. Does everybody break them in the south, No. Getting this across - that's where leadership comes in," says Carazza Bildt.

To date, EU leadership on this issue has been conspicuous by its absence. But Mario Monti, that Italian with supposedly Germanic traits, raised it during an address to European Parliament earlier this month.

"There are no goodies and baddies in the European Union," he said. "We all have to feel commonly responsible both for what has been done in the past and above all in the construction of the future."

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