Underlying the divisions bedeviling a recovery from the pandemic are stereotypes echoing those which emerged during the eurozone crisis.
The mounting toll from the coronavirus pandemic and its imminent social and economic repercussions constitute a big challenge for the European project. Now, more than ever, the European Union is called upon to show solidarity and emerge stronger from the many crises—health, social and economic—it is facing.
Yet, so far, EU-level decision-making has revealed significant divisions among member states, conducive only to the well-trodden path of ‘muddling through’, which raises serious questions as to the shared future of the union. This is the focus of a heated academic and public debate, vividly evidencing how this exceptional situation is stress-testing the institutional array and the very foundations of European solidarity, and highlighting the challenges ahead.
There has however been a missing—subtle but very important—dimension to the debate, which is having serious negative impacts on solidarity and social cohesion. This is how different European nations are being represented and portrayed through the politico-ideological mechanisms of discourse.
Alarmingly, north-south stereotypes have been rekindled in terms of how the pandemic has been handled by various European countries, resonating with the noxious discourse of austerity during the eurozone crisis. The dominant political rhetoric in the European north and the EU institutions has been one of moral tales contrasting the ‘frugal north’ with the ‘imprudent, reckless south’.
Crude, value-laden stereotypes and clichés have resurfaced in many discursive contexts, as reported by the BBC, the Guardian, Politico and others. These have pitted ‘smart Sweden’ or ‘intelligent lockdown that treats people as adults and not as children’ (according to the Dutch prime minster) against countries purportedly lacking the prepared ‘financial buffers’ (according to his finance minister) to cope.
In southern-European member states, the media have meanwhile been aflame with indignation and Euroscepticism is rapidly increasing among their 130 million citizens, fuelling populist narratives, for instance in Italy. Such anger stems not so much from the EU’s (expected) slow response—the usual cacophony, the lack of agreement, the limits to sanitary aid and the refusal to mutualise the debt and approve eurobonds—but the disdainful declarations on the part of several member-state leaders.
Citizens of the southern ‘periphery’—by the way, including the third and fourth largest economies of the EU—are very aware they will have to tighten their belts once again, and this before the impact of the last crisis has been overcome. Nobody is more conscious of their own (political, economic or other) failings and errors than themselves or more ready to acknowledge them publicly. But it is one thing to face tough times so soon again and recognise one’s own faults; it is a very different thing to have to do so in the face of contempt expressed by fellow European citizens.
Memories remain bitter of the similar political rhetoric dominating austerity discourse several years ago. People in the south were publicly accused of being lazy, corrupt, spendthrift, hardly productive, caring for nothing but fiesta and even (by the then Dutch finance minister) ‘spending all their money on wine and women’ (the offence amplified by the sexist assumptions)—in a nutshell, of being lesser human beings than their northern counterparts and, therefore, undeserving.
During the pandemic, that list of stigmas has been enlarged to include southerners being not mature, intelligent or disciplined enough to avoid compulsory confinement. Such PIGS!
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Never mind that their health services, greatly debilitated by a one-sided focus on protracted and damaging austerity—more or less directly enforced on them since the financial crisis—could have crashed, had strict lockdown measures not been introduced. Astonishingly, the most recent Post-Programme Surveillance Report for Portugal, released amid the pandemic (on April 8th), warns the country authorities of fiscal threats, due to excessive expenditure ‘on compensation of employees, as well as on pension[s] and healthcare … [i]ndependent of Covid-19’.
Legitimising policies by ‘morality narratives’ evoking total disrespect is inadmissible—especially among people involved in a common project. Are collective failures a rare phenomenon in north-European countries? Certainly not. Why then have southern-European citizens to endure a game of moral power exercised by the European north?
Creditors or debtors, we all need each other to keep the European economy afloat in an increasingly competitive global context. There is no future based on destructive derision and disrespect. Humiliating southern citizens threatens the viability of the union, on top of the nationalistic tensions already generated by ‘Brexit’.
Would it instead be possible to talk to each other, to try to resolve conflicts, to negotiate and reach agreements, deliberating as democratic European fellow-citizens in a dialogue devoid of insults and derogatory expressions? Navigating the pandemic and its aftershocks will depend on it.
Maria Petmesidou is professor emerita of social policy at Democritus University, Greece. For several years she was a member of the scientific committee of Comparative Research on Poverty, sponsored by the International Social Science Council and the University of Bergen. Ana M Guillén is professor of sociology at the University of Oviedo (Spain) and director of Promoting Work and Welfare in Europe. Her research interests include welfare-state development, comparative social and labour policy and Europeanisation and European integration.