What's Behind the Words

May 5, 2017


Is the expression recently used by Jeroen Dijsselbloem just a gaffe or do they hide something more?


The north of the eurozone showed solidarity... Solidarity is very important but those demanding it have duties too. I can't spend my money on liqueurs and women then ask for help"

With these few words the chief of eurozone finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has attracted the anger and the indignation of commenters and politicians. Most of them ultimately called for his resignation, given controversy that such statements generated.

Even though he admitted that he would have rephrased, the Dutch minister of finance refused to apologize and firmly stood by the message that was behind that controversial choice of language.

Dijsselbloem has of course denied any link between his unfortunate metaphor and the situation in Southern European countries. They referred, he claims, to every country in the Eurozone. Nevertheless, some suspicions may arise when looking at his past conduct. Despite being a social democrat, he has always been aligned with the most austerity-focused wave concerning European economics and this is not the first time his word resulted in some unintended consequences. When dealing with the 2013 Cyprus debt crisis, he caused a dramatic fall in European bank stocks after he claimed that the Cypriot formula could be a template for other nations. This earned him the infamous nickname Dijsselblood.

Whether this dispute is just a matter of political correctness is, therefore, quite questionable.

The Pandora’s box which Dijsselbloem’s words opened is something that has incredibly deep roots. The German word Schuld is used to refer to an unmoral behavior and it takes both the meanings of debt and guilt. The Greek word for debt is, instead, χρέος and its etymological origins are connected to the concepts of necessity and usefulness. This cultural cleavage represents one of the lines of tension which are hindering the European project.

The two most salient political achievements of the past century, the European integration and the building up of the welfare state seem to conflict with one another. The enlargement of some welfare measures at the European level has been repeatedly challenged by the lack of mutual solidarity among the peoples of Europe and the growing social tensions within them. Populisms and nationalisms are, therefore, both the result of these failures and the number one threat to the future of the EU.

Placating these tensions is possible and it is the vital condition under which the union can be kept in place, but this can only be done through both a strong leadership and a conciliating approach. Even though no one doubts that also Dijsselbloem’s objective is that of defending the union, the outcome his words may produce is exactly the opposite. Using stereotypes to stigmatize other countries’ behaviors induces the application mental shortcuts and fosters the prejudices among countries and people that are supposed to be united. The ideological and electoral consequences of such prejudices are easily predictable. Words are not just words; in this case, they are also the nourishment that grows and sustains the nationalist sentiment, which is now the last thing the EU needs.


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