Leading article: We really should be ruder about foreigners

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The Independent Online
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.