Leading article: We really should be ruder about foreigners

Share
Related Topics
Hans Tietmeyer is a "real pig". Edith Cresson is an "old bag". Goran Persson is a "wally". Suddenly the lid is taken off what one European leader says in private about some others. The response among Austrians to their foreign minister's unguarded outburst has been outrage, and opposition MPs have called for Wolfgang Schussel's resignation. Outside Austria, the response is more likely to be amusement. And amusement, rather than somewhat hypocritical outrage, is the best reaction.

We can think of some colourful descriptions of Mr Schussel himself (especially after he tried to claim he had been "misreported"), but would not want to be too rude: after all, he was performing a valuable democratic service. Most citizens of the European Union, and certainly most of those who are also inhabitants of the United Kingdom, would be hard pressed to identify the objects of Mr Schussel's scorn. But there is nothing like a few unexpected insults for attracting attention. Many more people will now be mildly curious to know whether the president of the Bundesbank is actually swinish. Just how old and unlikeable is the European Commissioner? How stupid is the Swedish prime minister?

Without wanting to pronounce definitively on the answers, these are questions that ought to matter. If there is going to be a genuine democracy at a Europe-wide level - a big "if", admittedly - then we have to get to know politicians of other nationalities. So there is a strong case for being much ruder about Europe's leaders. Our own politicians are familiar to us partly through caricature - one of the ways in which we form a view of what sort of people they are is by seeing what mud sticks where in the hurly-burly of yah-boo politics. It is not pretty, and much of the name-calling that passes for political debate is pointless and demeaning. But democracy does need a certain earthiness and spirit to function well. Part of the problem of the European Union is the sheer bloodless blandness of its bureaucratic, multilingual workings.

Who, apart from a small clique of professional politicians, has an opinion worth having, one way or the other, about Jacques Santer? This man is the figurehead of the EU, yet very few people across Western Europe have any sense of him. His predecessor, Jacques Delors, who always looked as if he had just bitten a lemon, probably left a more distinct image on our collective retina. It would help if Mr Schussel would let us know what he thinks of the president of the European Commission. If the European electorate is to hold its supranational rulers to account, it needs to have shorthand ways of understanding "foreign" politicians.

However much most people want politicians to recognise merit in the proposals of other parties and to co-operate more with each other, we all thrill to the frisson of the well-turned insult or the soap-operatic drama of a bitter rivalry. What we want is good, memorable insults, Elizabethan in quality, and larger-than-life figures.

Helmut Kohl fits the bill reasonably well, mostly by taking the larger- than-life thing a bit too literally. But Jacques Chirac? What do we know of him? The wide-boy of French politics, and little more. Many might have a clearer idea of what his prime minister, Lionel Jospin, stands for - because of his spat with Tony Blair over the newness of socialism. Given how important Mr Jospin is in shaping our collective European destiny, would our Prime Minister not have performed a greater service had he publicly attacked his French counterpart as an unreconstructed Old Labour fossil?

All right, this is not something that should be taken too far. There is obviously a danger that being rude about foreigners will slide into xenophobia. Some of Wolfgang Schussel's other comments, for example, are indefensible. As well as laying into Tietmeyer, Cresson and Persson, he also called an African ambassador a "barefoot native" and the president of Belarus a "bizarre Turk". It would not be wise, to take another example, to allow certain Conservative MPs or tabloid newspapers out after dark on the subject of Germans. And what is good-natured ribaldry in one national culture would be a gross libellous slur in another. But if we are all members of the same European democratic family, we will have to learn how to be rude to each other as well as how to be polite.

The solution would be to hold a summit to draw up a new European treaty. Each country would send a delegation of satirists, cartoonists and impressionists, who would draw up rules for mutually acceptable insult. Rudeness simply for the sake of it would be outlawed, but inventive invective would be positively encouraged. Sure, Denis Healey was best at savaging Margaret Thatcher (Rhoda the Rhino, and other gems), but it was Francois Mitterrand who really hit the mark with his oft-misquoted description: "She has the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe."

Of course, Tony Blair does not offer such a promising target, but our European partners have been much too nice to him so far - to the extent of letting him win the bicycle race in Amsterdam. Next time, let us hear more of what they all really think of each other. Then the rest of us might get to know the men in suits who increasingly make the laws that govern us.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam