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National and supranational stereotypes in geopolitical representations of the European Union

Stéréotypes nationaux et supranationaux dans les représentations géopolitiques de l’Union européenne
Virginie Mamadouh


Cet article analyse l'utilisation humoristique des stéréotypes dans les représentations géopolitiques de l'Union européenne. En s'appuyant sur la littérature sur les stéréotypes et les représentations géopolitiques et sur l'humour et la géopolitique populaire, cette étude vise à éclaircir les spécificités du cas de l'imagination géopolitique de l'Union européenne. Elle examine la production et la reproduction des stéréotypes nationaux et la création de projets supranationaux dans trois artefacts culturels commandités par une institution de l'UE. La première est Entropa, une installation artistique commanditée par la présidence tchèque du Conseil à l'occasion de la première présidence tchèque en 2009, et les deux autres sont des vidéos commanditées par la Commission européenne pour EUtube, son canal sur YouTube. Ils ont tous tenté d'utiliser des stéréotypes de manière humoristique pour promouvoir l'identification européenne, mais avec des effets variés. Grâce à l'analyse de ces cas et de leur déploiement de stéréotypes sur les États membres, les candidats, l'UE et ses partenaires externes comme la Chine, j'espère contribuer à une meilleure compréhension du caractère ambigu et dynamique des stéréotypes dans les représentations géopolitiques concernant l'auto-identification et les identités prêtées aux autres. L'utilisation humoristique des stéréotypes s'avère être un art difficile - en particulier pour les autorités – et génère des résultats incertains. Seuls des stéréotypes sans ambiguïté positifs peuvent être utilisés pour ce type de communication sans susciter une forte opposition. Les stéréotypes ambigus ou négatifs ont plutôt tendance à réactualiser les relations de pouvoir inégales et à alimenter les antagonismes.

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1“The perfect European should be….
cooking like a Brit, driving like the French, always available as a Belgian, talkative as a Finn, as humorous as a German, technical as a Portuguese, flexible as a Swedish, as famous as a Luxembourger, patient as an Austrian, controlled as an Italian, sober as the Irish, humble as a Spaniard, generous as a Dutchman, organised as a Greek, and discreet as a Dane.”
(postcard featuring the flag of the European Union and cartoons of these Europeans, by J.N. Hugues-Wilson 1995).

2“What is the unified Europe going to be like?
Heaven if
- The lovers … are Italian
- The cooks … are French
- The technicians … are German
- The policemen … are English
- And if everything is organised by the Swiss
Hell if
- The cooks … are English
- The policemen … are German
- The lovers … are Swiss
- The technicians … are French
- The policemen … are English
- And if everything is organised by the Italians.”

(reported in Hidasi 1999: 119)

3Humorous lists as these ones refer directly to stereotypes associated with different European nationalities but also hint at the stereotyped dysfunctionality of the European Union, since it brings together the worse from each participant (instead of combining positive stereotypes : humorous Brit, well organized German , discrete Luxembourger, generous Irish, talkative Italian….) and suggests that this could be the (unintended) outcome of integration. Therefore they do not only reproduce national stereotypes but produce new ones about the nature of the European Union and European integration. They are humoristic and slightly satirical. In these particular cases they question European integration in a time of Europhoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and German reunification in 1989-1990, in the light of the establishment of a Monetary and Political Union (Maastricht 1992) and of the prospect of an Eastern enlargement that would erase the post-war division of Europe.

4Stereotypes and humour are not reserved to cartoonists, stand-up comedians or critical observers, they can also be deployed by political actors promoting European integration but we know relatively little about such uses.

5This paper analyses the humoristic use of stereotypes in geopolitical representations produced in the name of EU institutions. The first section offers a conceptual framework for such an analysis by connecting the literature about stereotypes and geopolitical representations and that about humour and popular geopolitics, before turning to the specificities of the case of the geopolitical imagination of the European Union in the light of enduring national stereotypes. The rest of the paper offers three vignettes, examining the production and reproduction of national stereotypes and the creation of supranational ones in three instances. These case studies pertain to three cultural artefacts commissioned by EU institutions. The first is Entropa, an art installation commissioned by the Czech presidency of the Council at the occasion of the first Czech presidency in 2009, and the other two are videos commissioned by the European Commission in 2012 for EUtube, its channel on social media platform YouTube. They all attempted to use stereotypes humorously to promote European identification, but with variegated results. Through the analysis of these cases and their deployment of stereotypes of Member States, Candidate Member States, the EU and external partners such as China, I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the ambiguous and dynamic character of stereotypes in geopolitical representations regarding both self-identification and others’ identities. The humorous use of stereotypes proves to be a difficult art – especially for official institutions – and generates uncertain returns. Only unambiguously positive stereotypes can be used for this type of communication without generating strong opposition. Ambiguous or negative ones tend to re-actualize uneven power relations and to feed antagonisms instead.

Stereotypes, humour and official geopolitical representations

Stereotypes and geopolitics

6Much of the literature on critical geopolitics pertain to representations (despite a renewed interest in material political geographies, see in Agnew et al 2015). In these geopolitical representations, and the geographical imaginations from which they derive, stereotypes are important elements. They are shortcuts to represent the Self and/or others. Geographical imaginations, i.e. imaginations of the world and its inhabitants, consist of geopolitical representations produced, reproduced and circulated in geopolitical discourses. They express specific configurations of the nexus between power and space, between geography and politics, underlining how power (regardless of the exact definition and understanding of power one uses) comes into being through spatial practices, how space can be an instrument of power but at the same time structures power relations, while it is in turn shaped by the outcome of these power relations. In other words, power and space are co-constitutive of each other, both materially and ideationally (Dodds 2007, Rosière 2007, Dodds et al 2013, Agnew et al 2015, Van der Wusten & Mamadouh 2015, Flint 2017 for introductions in different languages).

7These geopolitical representations provide a diagnostic of the world as it is (especially its qualities and its flaws) and a prognostic of what comes (especially threats and opportunities). Therefore they enable individuals and groups to draw conclusions for their own strategic behaviour (how to address danger and to seize opportunities). In that context political geographers have been particularly interested in the geopolitical discourses that shape states’ foreign policy and underpin national identities and geopolitical visions (Dijkink 1996).

8These maps (both metaphorical and literal maps) and these visions are consequential (see Dodds 2003 on Balkanism and Agnew 2009 on Balkanization and Macedonian syndrome for example). They inform the perception of events abroad and they frame them as threat or opportunity, or as relevant or as irrelevant, and therefore shape the space for policy interventions (see Ó Tuathail 2002 for an example the US (non-)intervention in the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s). When an event is irrelevant to us, we need not to intervene, but if it is relevant, if it threatens our interests and/or our values, we are prompt to react. Moreover how we react, the options that are considered and the decision that are made will depend of our perception of the protagonists (as friends or foes, as rational or irrational actors), of their motivations (as legitimate or illegitimate claims) and of their inclinations towards compromises (as rational or irrational actors). Last but not least these discourses also shape who we are and our responsibilities. Therefore stereotypes severely determine both which issues are on the political agenda or which remain obscured, which viewpoints are heard and which voices remain silenced, and which solutions are seen as reasonable and which are deemed unrealistic.

9‘Stereotype’ is a term borrowed from printing, it was originally a duplicate printing plate. It seems to have been used metaphorically as a group image that is reproduced without change from the mid-nineteenth century, but it is the American journalist Walter Lippmann who introduced the term in its modern meaning in political and social sciences in the early 1920s. He uses it in his seminal book Public Opinion in which he demonstrated the importance of such perceptions in war and politics (Lippmann 1922). Stereotyping has been widely studied in social psychology although mostly at the individual level, regarding identification processes. Stereotypes affect the boundary making between groups and intergroup relations. They also affect individual trajectories as stereotypes can be used in an essentializing manner, obscuring individual characteristics with the alleged characteristics of the group to which one is supposed to belong. In the humanities there has been a widespread interest in imagology and national characters but the study of national stereotypes has often been centred on the individual and her or his psychological and cognitive needs for generalization and classification to handle the world in which she or he functions.

10From a social science perspective, the collective representations expressed and reproduced through stereotypes are more important. Stereotypes are functional, often self-serving, fostering national cohesion, making sense of the rest of the world through simplification, classification, labelling, othering and the reproduction of prejudice. They contribute to the production and reproduction of collective identities, through both self-identification and ascribed identities. Stereotypes can be used in chauvinistic narratives to glorify alleged qualities of the own group or to belittle others because of their alleged deficiencies. Stereotypes need not to be negative though, but negative ones are definitively problematic because they are deployed to justify prejudice, negative discrimination and exclusion, and to naturalize such attitudes and their outcomes, especially their negative effects on others.

11In political geography, stereotypes are not studied explicitly as such, although a lot work in critical geopolitics addresses issues of identity, Orientalism, Othering and boundary making, (Said 1978, Gregory 1994, Van Houtum & Van Naerssen 2002, Hooper & Kramsch 2007, Mamadouh & Bialasiewicz 2016 to name a few examples). De facto many of these representations of the Self and/or the Other produce and reproduce stereotypes about nations their culture, about their territories and about significant places and significant landscapes. In fact the main point of critical geopolitics as an academic project has been to question, disrupt, deconstruct and challenge such simplifications and the associated stereotyping of people and places in geopolitical discourses (Dalby 1993: 440, but see also the seminal article by Ó Tuathail and Agnew 1992 about the representation of the Soviet Union and Russia in American practical geopolitics).

12Stereotyping is a way of simplifying the complexity of the world around us. Whether they are true or not is not necessarily the most important question about them since “[t]hey reveal more about those who produce them than about the people and places they represent” (Boria 2006: 485). Boria for example examines how a shared stereotype of the Turk informs different geopolitical representations of Turkey in Italian culture and politics through different instrumentalisations of the same stereotype. He analyses past differences between Rome and Venice and contemporary ones between the Berlusconi government and the Northern League, but also other actors like the Vatican, industrialists and tour operators.

13More specifically geographers have studied the use of geographical labels in stereotyping processes. Discussing the work of the American geographer Donald Meining in the 1950s, John Agnew (2009) identifies two main goals “exposing the fallacy of timeless physical geography” and questioning the use of “geographical labels”. In these discursive practices of geographical analogy, familiar stereotypes about a place are used to “make the strange familiar” ie. to frame the situation in a new location with reference to the known situation in a new one (examples include the use of apartheid , quagmire, Macedonian syndrome, Balkanization). Similarly, Klaus Dodds (2003) had examined how the spectre of Balkanism (stereotypes about the Balkans) informs two James Bond movies, while contesting the (then new) subordinate role of the United Kingdom in the Cold War geopolitical order. In a very recent article Raffaella Coletti (2017) shows how the American television series The Good Wife combine the treatment of new societal themes and progressive attitudes in these domains, with the circulation of a very traditional and stereotyped representations of the world order, including traditional stereotypes about foreign characters, nations and places (China more notably).

14Stereotypes can be used for many reasons – sometimes unintentionally as a resulted of unconscious prejudice and sometimes intentionally – and they produce variegated (intended and unintended) effects on different audiences. One of their main functions is to foster group identities through the use of positive stereotypes about the own group (then in-group) and/or negative ones about others (the out-group) and the polarization of intergroup relations to strengthen in-group solidarity. These can be well established– such as national communities – or emerging ones - such as supranational communities. In all cases these identities are contested and the use of stereotypes is part of the negotiation of the meanings of these group identities. Stereotypes are often used to communicate information, as truthful representations of the reality, but in this paper I would like to focus on a specific deployment of stereotypes, namely the purposive use of stereotypes tongue-in-cheek – that is: as stereotypes. In such a case, the stereotype is expected to be perceived as a stereotype and humour is expected to be at work in the process of identification and/or classification. For this reason, let us first turn to the literature dealing with the role of humour in geopolitical representations.

Humour and geopolitics

  • 1 Like steretoypes, humour has been studied from a broad range of perspectives in the humanities, the (...)

15(Geo)political humour has been sparsely researched in political geography but the available publications are particularly insightful (See Ridanpää 2014a for a thorough review).1 Merje Kuus (2008) discusses the use of “irony and tactics as key tactics of political practice in Central Europe” during the transition and the negotiations for their adhesion to the European Union and NATO. She refers to it as Švejkian geopolitics after the famous novel The good soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the World War (1922) because he is the symbol of the resistance of the little man to borders, bureaucracies and authorities. Juha Ridanpää has published extensively on humour and geopolitics. In an early article he considered the Muhammed cartoons crisis, and more specifically its repercussion in Finland through an incident following a cartoon about about this crisis in the journal Kaltio, and shows how humour shape geopolitics (Ridanpää 2009). In his words

“Humour represents a process of negotiating the geopolitical order, and the Muhammed cartoon crisis ant the Kaltio incident followed this principle, as both represented examples of how humour is not merely a reflection of geopolitics but can also function as a primary impetus for political actions” (Ridanpää 2009: 744).

16How serious humour is, was a point he made again treating humour as a geopolitical speech act in his analysis of IMDb film reviews of Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (Ridanpää 2014b) and in humour as literary genre as a strategy of minorities, in this case the Tornedalen Finns in Swedish society (Ridanpää 2014c).

17Similarly, addressing issues of power in humor, Dodds & Kirby (2013) propose a research agenda for critical geopolitics regarding laughter and humour in which they build on the notion of ‘unlaughter’ proposed by Michael Billig to characterize the response of those “not amused” by a joke. They discuss the reception of the performance of the American comedian Stephen Colbert (known from The Colbert Report on Comedy Central) at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Amateurs of satirical news shows like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show (fake news in a different meaning than the one has been recently in vogue since the election of the Donald Trump as the President of the United States) see them as expedient critiques of the political elites, while critics stress that they undermine the democratic process (see for attempts to measure the effects of such shows Borden & Tew 2007, Hoffman & Young 2011). By contrast, Dodds & Kirby (2013) suggest that the progressive potential of humour could promote conflict resolution and peaceful relations, mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour founded by two comedians from Chicago in 2006 (the one Jewish, the other Palestinian) with its motto “if we can laugh together, we can live together”. Studying stand-up comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and his puppet Achmed the dead terrorist, Purcell, Brown and Gokmen (2009) offer disposition theory to situate humour in the context of its original production and its circulation in wider networks. They argue that the many stereotypes the stand-up comedian uses, reinforce popular representations and prejudices about Muslims, but at the same time his show humanizes the terrorist. Thorogood (2016) has recently contribute to this emerging debate on satire and geopolitics with an analysis of vulgarity and the body grotesque in South Park, the popular weekly cartoon series, which has generated many controversies since its inception in 1997 (this is also a Comedy Central production). He discusses the use of stereotypes in the cartoons, but stresses the incoherence of the convened representations.

18Finally some studies focus more on the humour beyond entertainment and media situations.

19Geographers have also signaled the educational function of humor. Alderman & Popke (2002) argue for the use of Roger Moore’s TV Nation in the geography classroom to get students thinking (in this case about NAFTA) and Dittmer (2013) examines the role of humour and laughter in large scale role games (in this case a Model United Nations) suggesting that humour is facilitating debate and consensus building in the simulation of negotiations. Turning to political struggles, Hammett (2011) presents the caricaturing of senior political and military officials in Zimbabwe (especially through a satirical set of game cards) as a form of resistance and Epstein and Iveson (2009) examine the use of humour in the resistance to the extensive security measures during the 2007 APEC leaders’ meeting in Sydney. They identify three possibilities for urban citizenship during that event: complaint, protest and parody. Mocking the powerful has been widely used indeed by grassroots movements (think of Otpor in Serbia in the 1990s, Provo in the Netherlands in the 1960s to name only a few very successful ones). In a study for the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia, Stuberga (2017) investigates the late night shows on the Russia television channel Perviy Kanal (Channel One) between May 2008 and July 2016 and more specifically the delegitimisation of Western leaders, while the editors of this collection formulates a toolkit for policy makers for the use of humour as a tool for strategic communication (Ozoliņa et al 2017). This last example is one of the few instance where humour is actually conceived as a tool for those in power to mobilize citizens and raise popular support, to win the hearts and minds of the public (ie a tool of public diplomacy).

20All these studies stress how serious and political humour is, how critical and emancipatory it can be but also how oppressive. They also stress that it is spatially constituted, and the understanding of the spaces in which it is produced, circulated and received is key (“Humour is spatially conditioned” (Ridanpää 2009: 733)) and that it is geopolitical consequential because it both expresses and affects power relations between groups.

21Humour is a slippery concept. It is culturally and spatially embedded, in other words it is not universally shared and understood. It has many functions and many genres and nuances. It is beyond the scope of this paper to distinguish between these many categories and their uses. Charaudeau (2004) attempts to present categories to differentiate between humour, irony, satire, parody, sarcasm, etc… and between different dynamics, different situations of enunciation (the relation between the locator, the addressee and the target), and different themes and between linguistic and discursive processes. In the end he proposes to distinguish different effects depending on the nature of the connivance involved between the speaker and her/his interlocutor(s): ludic, critical, cynical mocking or joking collusion. Without attempting to use his classification, it is important to stress the wide diversity of humourous interventions. This paper does not consider humour meant to elicit laughter, but rather a more subtle form of humour in which a reference to stereotypes – with a certain irony – is meant at foregrounding shared experiences and establishing the sense of a shared (supranational) identity.

Stereotypes old and new

22Although the notion of stereotypes suggest enduring images, the studies discussed above amply demonstrates that stereotypes are not set in stone but that their content evolve during the process of their production, circulation and reception. This implies that new stereotypes can emerge when new groupings and new boundaries gain relevance (for example Brand Africa in Browning and D’Oliveira 2017).

23Most studies of geopolitical stereotypes focus on national ones (either in foreign relations or in minority-majority relations within polities), both in political geography and beyond (for example Vucetic 2004 on jokes and intergroup relations in Bosnia, Smith 2009 on jokes and boundary maintenance between groups). Likewise in the humanities and the social sciences other approaches are also centred on the social production of identities and representations. Think for example of the discipline known as imagology (Leerssen 2000, Chew 2006, Beller & Leerssen 2007, Baldassarre 2015). More over stereotypes have been deployed in place and nation branding efforts, mostly positive ones but also negative ones as Cho (2017) demonstrated about North Korea in a recent special issue of Geopolitics on nation branding. In all these studies, the veracity of the stereotypes is not so important; the aim is to research how they come about, how they are deployed. Nonetheless the very questioning of their origin and uses should remind us that these stereotypes should not be taken at face value and never be essentialized, but that they are the results of social relations and they are subject to change.

24The aim of this paper is to examine how stereotypes are deployed regarding emerging entities such as the European Union, and how these new representations are reworking and reinforcing national stereotypes and creating new supranational ones.

  • 2 There is a long tradition and a wide production of analyses of national stereotypes in Europe, both (...)

25The chosen cases are productions linked to those in power – the EU institutions (the European Commission, or a government assuming the rotating presidency of the Council).2 They have commissioned these cultural products under study, but the artists or the audiovisual producers have had the freedom to create a work of art or an advertisement as they saw fit. In all three cases, there is some critical distance involved, not necessarily meaning that the makers are critical of those holding political power (as in satirical news or in cartoons) but that they are critical of the established and taken-for-granted geopolitical status quo and the essentialising assertion of national states, the national identities. and the national stereotypes in the European context. The intended effect on geopolitical relations is allegedly the legitimizing of further European integration.

Stereotypes, identity politics and European integration

  • 3 These three cases were part of a larger series of national and linguistic stereotypes presented in (...)

26How is then European integration and its representation reworking national stereotypes and how does it contribute to the creation of a EUropean stereotype (i.e. a stereotypical representation of the European Union and its inhabitants). In this section I examine three recent (European) examples of how stereotypes (both national and supranational) have been deployed in the representation of the European Union and European integration. 3 They are all three related to EU institutions and their communication with the EU citizens and their attempt to foster some kind of European identity in the period following the Eastern enlargements (2004 and 2007) and the latest one at the very beginning of the financial crisis and the severe existential crisis that followed. All three use stereotypes tongue-in-cheek but with variegated effects. The first two generated much outrage about their stereotyping, by contrast the third one did not. A closer reading of these stereotyping might help us understand how stereotypes interact with geopolitical representations and when they are likely to generate consensus or to fuel antagonisms.


27The exhibition Entropa was commissioned by the Czech government for the opening of its first presidency in 2009. This was a particularly important symbolic moment, since this was the first time the Czech Republic was president since its accession in 2004.

28It is customary for the rotating president of the Council of Ministers to commission some piece of art for an exhibition in the Justus Lipsius building, which is the headquarter of the Council in Brussels. The Czech presidency had commissioned David Černý an art work to match with its motto Europe without barriers. The artist prepared an exhibition under the title Entropa: Stereotypes are barriers to be demolished (see also press release of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU on 12 January 2009).

29The installation – a kit of Europe, a gigantic plastic model to be put together such as the models of planes, cars, motorbikes, ships and so on known as Airfix models in the UK, Heller in France, Revell in Germany, Italeri in Italy etc. – was presented as a collective work of 27 artists, one from each of the other Member States (this was before the accession of Croatia). According to Černý each member state was represented by a work of art of a national artist based on stereotypes other Europeans have about her or his own country. At the opening of the exhibition some of the works caused much commotion and even outrage among civil servants, diplomats, politicians, and the general public in certain Member States and led eventually to formal complains. The discontent with the exhibits was deeply aggravated when it became clear that the artists did not exist and all the works had been created by Černý and his Czech team. The stereotypes were even less acceptable now that they were not self-inflicted caricatures but qualities ascribed from the outside. There were even diplomatic incidents and they escalated in the case of Bulgaria. Eventually the piece for Bulgaria (an ensemble of squad toilets labelled Turkish toilets) was covered at the demand of the Bulgarian government (or veiled as McLane 2012: 478 phrases it ). The Bulgarian debate about the artwork has been particularly hot concerning the meaning of the Turkish toilet, a discussion that was transformed once it became clear it was not the work of a Bulgarian artist, but the debates also evolved around the censorship of “the cloth-covered toilet” (Roth 2010).

30The catalogue published with the installation and provides the description of the installation, an explanation in three language and a short biography of the artist in English for the 27 member states.4 These biographies also play with stereotypes over the different nationalities (names, trajectories, etc.). The French artist is for example a collective the GRAA - Groupe de Recherche d´Art Audiovisuel, whose members did not provide a CV and “As a result of the global and local political, economic and cultural situation, [… had] gone on strike indefinitely” (what else could you expect from the French?) The most important feature of the artwork is the way each country is represented in the kit. The booklet presents sketches of the pieces of the installation that sometimes differ slightly from the real 3D sculpture.

  • 5 The elimination of German (the largest mother tongue in the Union) by certain presidency (such as t (...)

31It is noteworthy that the catalogue mocks the EU protocols. It uses flags and national colours. The countries are listed alphabetically (as it is customary in EU publications) but in English (and not in the original language as customary in Brussels in which case one would find Germany under the D for Deutschland, Greece under the E for Ελλάδα, Spain under the E from España or Finland under the S for Suomi. Similarly the catalogue is trilingual using Czech, English and French, only three of the official languages of the EU: the language of the Member State holding the presidency (this time Czech), and English and French as main working languages of the Commission, but not German, although this language is generally included in the communication strategy of the successive presidencies.5 Interestingly the linguistic elements in the sketches and the installation were in English, except for the French “En grève!” in the installation (see Table 1) but originally in English in the catalogue through.

32Table 1 features the description of the pieces of the puzzle: a sketch according to the brochres, the description of the exhibition published by the Techmania Science Center where the installation is now hosted6 and pictures of the installation.7

Table 1 - ENTROPA 2009- Stereotypes and representations

Table 1 - ENTROPA 2009- Stereotypes and representations

33Černý’s choices does not to expose a view of Europe “according to the Czechs” but s selection of prejudices of Europeans about each other. They surely reflect ongoing political debates, especially regarding European integration, but also more traditional stereotypes and more individual experiences. The description of the countries does not reveal a single logic: some entries comments on the relations of the Member State with the EU (UK), others refer to iconic landmarks, national characteristics and folkloric prejudice (Dracula for Romania, IKEA for Sweden, the Catholic Church for Poland, football for Italy…), some refer to domestic political economic or cultural developments (Czech Republic, France, Spain, the Netherlands). geopolitical tradition (“Portugal is not a small country”), relations with neighbouring countries (Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria) or more specifically to relations with the Czech Republic (Sweden).

34In general Entropa can be read as a critique of the use of stereotypes as shorthand for identities in cross cultural encounters. Moreover the kit as a whole suggests Europe is still to be put together, that some pieces are missing and that the result is likely to be deceiving (like the plastic model often deceived and ended up unfinished or poorly glued in a corner of the room).

35The very title of the artwork suggests however that it is more a comment on the EU as a whole than on its parts, on how it operates as a system, alluding to entropy, a measure of disorder in a system. Alexandr Vondra, the deputy prime minister for European Affairs, was quoted in The Guardian at the opening, stressing how the art work was intended as a comment on the EU, not on national stereotypes:

“Sculpture, and art more generally, can speak where words fail.”
“In line with the Czech presidency motto, 'A Europe without barriers', we gave the 27 artists the same opportunity to express themselves freely as a proof that, in today's Europe, there is no place for censorship.”
"In return, we got an uncommon, yet common, piece of art. I am confident in Europe's open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project." (quoted in Watt 2009)

36The Czech minister was too optimistic and his government was forced to handle requests to intervene and to choose between insulting fellow European governments and censoring the artists. A choice that was made easier when it turned out that Černý had not worked with national artists as was agreed with his sponsor.

37Knowing Černý’s track record (he became famous when he painted pink the Monument to Soviet tank crews in Prague in 1991), he was also surely making a statement on the Czech government, the president Klaus as they explicitly clashed before, and the Czech self-inflated image and ambitions at the eve of their first presidency of the Council. Forcing Czech politicians and diplomats to mobilize most of their resources to handle the commotion – even if the diplomatic stir was probably greater than the artist had anticipated and hoped for– was also a way of disrupting the scripting of a “ prefect” presidency by “perfect” Europeans after their “perfectly” managed return to the West. It upsets the completion of the return to Western Europe of Central Europe (echoing the famous argument made by Milan Kundera in 1983/1984 about a kidnapped occident behind the Iron Curtain) through the accession to the European Union.

  • 8 See Smith 2009 discussion of the modern Western valorization of the sense of humour and the alleged (...)

38The art work seemed to have revealed or revived (musing about) east-west divides in Europe: more sense of humour in the west (Entropa being associated with a British sense of humour like Monty Python or Sacha Baron Cohen) believed to be less current in former Eastern Europe8 (but then again, think of Sveikian humour! see above Kuus 2008) or Černý’s selection of kinder and less offensive stereotypes for the older member states. The British public was reported rather amused of being portrayed as absent, but that was seen as rather benevolent by former Eastern Europeans compared to being portrayed as a squad toilet (Bulgaria) or a sausage wrapped in the colours of the flag of the neighbours (Slovakia). Similarly the team of imaginary artists was sometimes called a joke, but more often a hoax, a fiction, a mystification, a falsification, even a forgery (Zigelyte 2012) when moving east. The controversy also pertained to the role of art and political patronage, including the question whether the artist has committed fraud and should give the money back (because he did not hire artists in the 27 member states as he claimed he did).

39No doubt, as an artwork Entropa was successful in disturbing business as usual. The installation was removed earlier than planned from the Justus Lipsius building and transported to Prague and later to the Techmania Science Centre in Pilsen (and its presence – also controversial in local politics – was allegedly to have been an asset for the city to win the title of 2015 European Capital City of Culture.9

40This was much to the liking of the artist but for the authorities that commissioned the work, the impact of the stir was more problematic. The use of stereotypes had clearly high political costs, although it does not seem to have negatively impacted on the evaluations of the Czech presidency in European circles and think tanks, although the commotion was duly noted in the authoritative evaluation of the Journal of Common Market Studies (Beneš & Karlas 2010: 71) even if it is put in perspective in light of the challenges facing the presidency such as the uncertain faith of the Lisbon Treaty, the global financial crisis, the Ukrainian gas crisis, and domestically the vote of no-confidence lost by the Topolánek government (to name a few).

41One year later, when Spain took over the presidency and presented the associated installation in Justus Lispius: a video installation by Daniel Canogar entitled ‘Travesías’ (crossings). References were all over the place: “Spanish Presidency unveils ‘uncontroversial’ art installation” and the artist was quoted explaining he had “clearly trying to avoid offering references to national symbols,” favouring instead interpretations of the work that do not involve national colours.”10 The ghost of Entropa was still haunting the Justus Lipsius building.

The EU enlargement on YouTube

42The two other examples are video clips commissioned by the European Commission for its channel on YouTube under the name EUtube since 2006). Both were posted online in early 2012. Both aimed at communicating the important of further integration and enlargement of the EU. These short videos (generally about 1 minute) target younger Europeans using social media, they feel like advertising, and rely essentially on the visual message, with little spoken or written text – in English as the language of wider communication. Although stereotypes are surely more often than not invoked implicitly or explicitly in this short vignettes on European politics and society, these two videos are particularly instructive. The first caused a stir about its stereotyping (as Entropa), the other did not. It was chosen among a huge collection of videos because it is a video that uses national stereotyping and was downloaded very often. It ranks fourth on EUtube11 with over 1 million downloads. The most popular were Film lovers will love this (2007) with about 9,5 million views and Romanticism is still alive in Europe (2007) with over 1,25 million views, two videos about the European film sector featuring sex scenes, respectively romantic scenes from famous European movies and circulating stereotypes about sex and romantic love in European popular culture (unspecified nationally). Number 3 Chemical Party – Marie Curie.(with 1,27 million views ) is a chemistry lesson featuring some stereotyping about nerds to promote the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (the famous EU programme to promote mobility among young researchers). All three uses stereotyping, but not national ones.

43The first video is known under the title EU enlargement: Growing together. As most videos produced for YouTube for the European Commission. It is a clearly staged scene with no text at all until the final message (in English). The addressees are young watchers using social media. The clip was removed from EUtube after a few hours because it was perceived as prejudiced, racist and imperialist. The clip had already been widely shared and can still be viewed on a large number of unofficial sites.12 Fr this reason it is difficult to evaluate its circulation.

  • 13 Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) and the original four-hour cut, retitled Kil (...)

44The clip (as all the videos posted on YouTube for the Commission) targeted a young public. It portrayed Europe as a young lady in yellow, looking a bit like The Bride (Uma Thurman) the heroin of the American movie Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino13 and fighting three non-white men. When the sequence starts, the young white woman, dressed in a yellow costume is walking in a disaffected warehouse and a gong signals that is suddenly “attacked” by a yellow man, then a brown man, then a black man each wearing the cloths (and in one case a weapon) and demonstrating a choreography attached to a specific martial art. Connoisseurs can tell that the three men represents three martial arts: kung fu, kalaripayattu and capoeira. In other words they represent the countries where these martial arts originate from the three emerging powers in the world economy: China, India and Brazil. The woman stays calm, closes her eyes, spreads her arms and multiplies herself in 12 identical clones who encircle the three men. All sit down. The camera view changes angle and now views the scene from above and the twelve clones of Europe changed into yellow stars and the ensemble into the EU flag. The men have disappeared in thin air (see Table 2 for some snapshots).

45The closing statement appears in English on a dark blue background with the enlargement logo (colourful circles representing the member states on a map of Europe):

The more we are
The stronger we are
© European Union 2012

46The credits clearly signal that the message is primary about the need for European states to join forces to meet the new challenges of the world economy.

Table 2 - Growing together : the EU and emerging economies (2012)

Table 2 - Growing together : the EU and emerging economies (2012)

Source: The video has been removed on EUtube the same day of its posting. See note ** for altenative locations where it can still be viewed.

47The original post was removed but it had gone viral. According to Simic (2015b: 186) it spread across 7,000 websites (starting on March 6 2007). The video was widely noticed and shared, but not in the way the makers had expected. The reactions were very negative as shows the remarks of those who re-posted the video on YouTube (where it was still available ten years later),:

I'm not the owner of this video. The European Commission was forced to withdraw this video in March 2012 after it was criticised as "racist."14

This ad was launched by the EU and then immediately withdrawn because of overwhelming bad feedback. I had made a backup however and think people should be able to see it.15

White European Woman attacked by aggressive Black, Asian and Indian Men. This is the official EU enlargement commercial aired across the EU 16

The European Commission has issued an apology after complaints were made about an advert uploaded to YouTube advertising European Union enlargement17.

48The video has been interpreted as a racist and sexist script, suggesting that Europe was superior and more peaceful than China, India and Brazil, and by extension that non-white men were violent, aggressive and threatening to (white) women. Additionally the personification of Europe is often seen as exclusive for non-white Europeans and the personification of Brazil as Black as misleading re the racial demographics of the country. Whether the relations between Europe and her challengers can easily be described as racist, this racism is sometimes surprisingly described as an reflecting racial differences within Europe: “Three men are from ethnic minorities using martial arts skills with a possible interpretation of preparing to fight a woman ” (Simic 2015a: 7) and the same author notes furthers that it claims that “no other race can challenge ‘white supremacy’” (Simic 2015a: 8).

49The chosen script was meant to convey a completely different message. Indeed the European Commission is generally no challenger of political correctness. The focus was on enlargement and the need of individual European states to join forces to be able to cope with the challenge of global economic competition and the emerging economies. The martial arts theme was an attempt to surf on the popularity of this film genre. The choice of martial arts with a long history and a robust and venerable tradition could be read as a plea against aggression and violence and for discipline and self-control, mutual respect and collaboration. In that sense these stereotypes could be read as positive framings. At the same time, the Kill Bill reference for the European persona could be read as a negative framing, since the heroine of the film is particularly violent. The irony of these references was lost to the general public. There was nothing funny about them (a clear instance of unlaughter in Billig’s term – see above especially Dodds & Kirby 2013 and Smith 2009).

50According to Stefano Sannino, the director general of the Enlargement Division of the Commission - as quoted in The Guardian (Watt 2012), the young audience and acquainted to martial arts films and video games was positive, as was the focus group. “We apologise to anyone who may have felt offended. Given these controversies, we have decided to stop the campaign immediately and to withdraw the video”. There was a clear mismatch between the intended stereotypes and those perceived by the audience. Partly because of its coolness for the intended audience, mostly because of its inappropriateness for a larger audience, the video has been reposted and is still popular. It has remained out of control ever since.

51The second video is entitled Hidden treasures of Europe.18 It was posted just two weeks before the previous one and also deals with enlargement but in a very different way. It has been available since 2012 on YouTube. It has been seen over a million time (as of late 2016) and can be said to have been at least as successful as the previous one – and far less controversial.

  • 19 Croatia became a member of the European Union in 2013.
  • 20 Iceland discontinued the accession negotiations in 2015.

52The video clip supports enlargement with geographical stereotypes: it displays sceneries or scenes typically associated with a Member State – showing its name (in English) with a question mark and then replacing this erroneous place label with the name of the candidate Member State where the clip was filmed. The video is accordingly a succession of sequences – one for each candidate member states in South Eastern Europe (i.e. the Western Balkans and Turkey). The selection include candidates close to accession (Croatia)19, candidates negotiating accession (Turkey), declared candidates (Montenegro) and other potential candidates (such as Bosnia but also Kosovo, although several Member States do not recognize its independence). It is worth noting that candidate Iceland20 was not included (although it suspended the accession negotiations only a year later).

Table 3 - The hidden treasures of Europe

Table 3 - The hidden treasures of Europe

*Croatia was then a candidate member state and joined the Union in 2013.

NB: The video Hidden treasures of Europe is with over 1 million views one of the most downloaded videos posted by the European Commission on EUtube since 2006

Source:​watch?v=R_jRjPl9iRQ&feature=plcp&context=C47da909VDvjVQa1PpcFPGOEuvWmODi-JsQgq3XBM7WvzmsU6zrMs%3D (accessed September 2017)

53The sound track starts with piano music mixed with life sounds (voices, traffic) and crescendo electronic music) and a return to piano after a little girl running in from of the Greek ruin says hello to the watcher in Albanian (with English subtitle). Then the closing statements appear: a few lines of text popping up in English on a dark blue background with the enlargement logo (just as the previous video):

So similar, so different
So European
Coming together
© European Union 2012

54All stereotypes (see Table 3) are positive and they are deployed to convey a positive message about the candidate member states, suggesting they are much more similar to the old ones that is generally acknowledged but also underlining the differences between them, similar to the differences between the Member States. For that purpose it seems that the message needed the chosen Member States to be “older” Member States, that is Member State of EU15, as none of the chosen stereotypes is associated with a new ones (Poland and the 11 others that joined in 2004 and 2007). It could be argued however that the main function of the stereotype is here to “make the unknown familiar” (to quote Agnew 2009 –see above) and that the old EU15 were more familiar than the new Member States , while their inhabitants represent about four fifth of the EU27 population. People everywhere in and outside the EU were more familiar with France or Greece than with Cyprus or Estonia.

55Last but not least, the stress on cultural differences also suggests that the candidate states will support the European principle of United in diversity. An (unintended?) drawback could have been that the video suggests that you need to be similar to one of the existing member states to be allowed to join the club, while the absence of Iceland echoes the fact that this candidacy needs not to be explained, justified and defended, at least in cultural terms.

  • 21 It is unclear however if we see some significance in the juxtaposition of Turkey with Germany (the (...)

56To my knowledge no controversy has arisen from these representations - apart from the usual questioning of Turkey’s European credentials in the commentaries from internet users. The choice of the images, the emotions and judgements associated with them were not an issue, nor were the association of a certain landscape or scene with specific locations.21

57The use of stereotypes (national, supranational or else) on EUTube is open for further research. Earlier videos on EUtube that attracted much contestation were deploying stereotypes too, but positive ones about European film and about the end of the Cold War, and they were nonetheless contested. The issue of contention was however different. Film lovers will love this, the 2007 clip celebrating the European audio-visual policies and the European cinema, shows a succession of sex scenes from successful movies and was criticized (especially from Poland and the UK) as pornographic: the critics were opposing the use of European public money for that purpose. The video was maintained online with a warning asking viewers younger than 18 not to watch and it is to this day one of the most popular videos on EU-tube (with over 9 million views on EUtube itself and many more on the many re-posts of the video). The 20th anniversary of democratic change in Central and Eastern Europe, the 2009 clip about the chain of events that led to the end of the communist regimes in former Eastern Europe, was criticized for being focused on the story of a German boy born in 1989 and therefore exclusively focused on the events in Germany. The response of the Commission was to complement it by an additional video on the life of a Polish girl born in 1989 with the political changes in Poland on the background, under the title “Thank you! Dziękuję!” In this case competing national claims to fame were at stake (see Mamadouh 2011 for a discussion of these controversies). It would be advisable to pursue a more systematic study of the use of stereotypes – also in cases when they go unnoticed and when the videos reach only a moderate public (typically EUtube videos reach a few thousands viewers).


58Stereotypes remain fascinating resources for the communication of the representation of collective identities. The examples presented in this paper show that they pertain to (enduring and reinvented) national stereotypes as well as emerging stereotypes about the European Union and the European integration. The later are often overlooked while the attention focuses on the more familiar, national stereotypes. The three examples scrutinized in this paper deployed stereotypes tongue-in-cheek but with variable success. The two video clips made for the European Commission played differently with stereotypes: the first tried to promote a European identity through stereotypes of Europe and other bigger players but was perceived as a objectionable expression of gross prejudice towards Europe’s Others. By contrast the second clip was using stereotypes of Europeans about each other. The latter seem to be more acceptable as it is used to highlight differences and commonalities between them. However the sanguine reactions that marked the reception of the Entropa exhibition suggest that what matter is (unsurprisingly) the very content and connotations of the stereotypes: negative national stereotypes are difficult to handle – especially when they re-actualize unequal relations (such as the legacy of the European colonial powers, the core-periphery relations between Western and Eastern Europe and the precarious European credentials of Central and Eastern Europeans).

59The massive rejection of the stereotyping of China, India and Brazil – that was particularly ambiguous and could be read both as negative (threatening and violent) and as positive (masterly skilful) – can possibly be explained by its esotericism: only a niche audience consisting of a relatively young public of amateurs of martial arts and martial arts movies understood the wink.

60The contestation of the negative national stereotypes of Entropa was mostly moved by the outrage about its origins, once it was discovered that the artist has manufactured the pieces himself, instead of bringing together testimonies from each of the Member States. In other words it matters who speaks: national audiences do not accept the same kind of portraying from a group member than from someone external to the group (a similar dynamic has long been noted for jokes about marginalized groups that can only be told in public by member of the group – à la rigueur).

61From the three cases we can conclude that the deployment of group stereotypes is highly dynamic and entails a constant production, reproduction and creation of sets of related images. Using them humorously is no simple affair, especially when the audience is the general public. National stereotypes are not only deployed to make the strange familiar (as Agnew 2009 was suggested with the term Balkanization and Macedonian syndrome) but also to shape supranational stereotypes incorporating older, national ones. The power relations between producers, addressees and targets matter. In the three cases soft and hard boundaries boundaries between us and them were represented (us and them inside the EU, us and them inside and almost inside the EU, and between us in the EU and them outside).

62The juxtaposition of hidden treasures in European states – not yet members – seem to suggest that their Europeanness is already established, and not dependent of their EU membership which is only a matter of time, contradicting more common analysis of the predicament of new and candidate member states as being and remaining less Europeans. It firmly geo-graphs South-Eastern Europe as European.

63The personification of Europe in the second video about economic globalization and emerging economies, fits nicely the predominance of the European Commission in trade affairs and its role in the World Trade Organization: if there is one domain in which the EU speaks with one voice that is international trade. Accordingly, noticeable absents in the video were other big competitors on the global scene, such as the USA, Japan and Russia. The ad also lacked any critical intend regarding the hegemonic discourse of the European internal market as the largest economy in the world, of globalization as global economic competition, or of the threat of the BIC as emerging economies challenging the more powerful trade blocs (the EU, the US and Japan).

64In a much more critical (possibly cynical) way, Entropa was holding up a mirror to European leaders and European citizens and questioning the illegibility of the EU decision making and its lack of legitimacy, that the predominance of national lenses (national politicians, national media, national identities, national interests….) generate. The EU is still an airfix model and Europeans have not yet manage to put it together in a satisfactorily way. Unfortunately the fuzz about hurt feelings caused by some of the national stereotypes used in the installation got much more attention than the general critique of the EU configuration and the reproduction of the stereotype of a dysfunctional EU. Since then, the multiple crises of the European Union (financial and economic crisis, the Greek crisis, the migrant crisis, the Brexit, not to forget its role in its neighbourhood) have provided many opportunities to strengthen such a stereotype (see also Quatremer 2017).

65Since these examples address the creation of stereotypes about a relatively new political entity (the European Union) and a relatively new political identity (the EUropean identity) it helps us see how old and new stereotypes go hand in hand and affect each other. It also demonstrates that the use of stereotypes in a humorous way is particularly difficult to control when addressing a broad and diverse audience (as opposed to the niche public of a stand-up comedian, a satirical journal or a cartoonist). The humorous part can go unnoticed to some of the audience or risk not being accepted as such and been indeed rejected as offensive – this is of course a particularly problematic result for cultural productions linked to official institutions. How such stereotyping from above interact with other cultural productions is also an important question for the further exploration of geopolitical representations of the EU and European integration.


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1 Like steretoypes, humour has been studied from a broad range of perspectives in the humanities, the social and the behavioural sciences. This discussion is (again) limited to political geography and critical geopolitics.

2 There is a long tradition and a wide production of analyses of national stereotypes in Europe, both literary and academic, from De l‘esprit des lois and die steirische Völkertafel in the Eighteenth century to the Atlas of Prejudice recently published by Yanko Tsekov in several languages (2013. Atlas of Prejudice. Alphadesigner, 2013. Atlas der Vorurteile. München: Knesebeck. 2014. Atlas des préjugés. Paris: Éditions des Arènes., see also his website and (See also Mamadouh 2017 for historical other examples or more in general Dąbrowska, Pisarek and Stickel 2017.).

3 These three cases were part of a larger series of national and linguistic stereotypes presented in a talk in Warsaw in September 2017 for the annual conference of the European Federation of National Institutions for Language (EFNIL) (Mamadouh 2017).

4 It is still available on the archived website of the Czech presidency The biographies of the fictitious artists were also (and are still) available online (accessed January 2017)

5 The elimination of German (the largest mother tongue in the Union) by certain presidency (such as the Finnish presidency for reason of efficiency has been always formally criticized by Germany

6 The same description is reproduced and amended in the English language wikipedia article devoted to the installation

7 and the Euractiv post on YouTube Entropa: Controversial Czech exhibit sparks debate on EU (both still available in January 2017) or the entry on Entropa on the English language of Wikipedia, ( and many pictures of individual countries that can any search engine can retrieve.

8 See Smith 2009 discussion of the modern Western valorization of the sense of humour and the alleged humourlessness of the Muslim world in her analysis of the reception of the Danish Muhammad cartoons.

9 see and (accessed January 2017).

10 Euractiv 5 January 2010, (accessed January 2017).

11 (accessed August 2016, March 2017 and September 2017).

12 ; ; (under the title “the enlacement ad” ;

13 Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) and the original four-hour cut, retitled Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (2011).

14 (accessed January 2017)

15 (accessed January 2017)

16 (accessed January 2017)

17 (accessed January 2017)

18 January 2017)

19 Croatia became a member of the European Union in 2013.

20 Iceland discontinued the accession negotiations in 2015.

21 It is unclear however if we see some significance in the juxtaposition of Turkey with Germany (the member state with the largest Turkish diaspora), Croatia with Austria (and their shared but disputed history under the Austrian Hungarian Monarchy) or Kosovo with Spain (one of the Member States not recognizing its independence).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1 - ENTROPA 2009- Stereotypes and representations
Fichier image/png, 4,9M
Titre Table 2 - Growing together : the EU and emerging economies (2012)
Crédits Source: The video has been removed on EUtube the same day of its posting. See note ** for altenative locations where it can still be viewed.
Fichier image/png, 288k
Titre Table 3 - The hidden treasures of Europe
Légende *Croatia was then a candidate member state and joined the Union in 2013.
Fichier image/png, 586k
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Virginie Mamadouh, « National and supranational stereotypes in geopolitical representations of the European Union  », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 32 | 2017-2, mis en ligne le 20 septembre 2017, consulté le 19 octobre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/espacepolitique.4363

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Virginie Mamadouh

Associate Professor in Political and Cultural Geography
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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