Tuesday, 4 May 2004

The Grauniad


A Galaxy even further away...

As European-PacRim relations sink to a new low, Alan E. Brain goes to deepest Denmark to discover what the average European thinks about people at the other side of the world.

The Australian Steak House Restaurant looks a little more promising than the dozens of other eating places along the narrow, twisty little alleyways in Copenhagen, Denmark. The discreet hint of sunshine in the decor and the lack of any wine list disguise the fact that there are dozens of other Australian Steakhouses across Europe, all with precisely the same menu. This means, presumably, that everyone ordering a steak sandwhich anywhere in this tiny "continent" will receive the same miniscule cut of marbled, grain-fed beef swimming in an unsubtle mixture of tomato paste and fat.

The diner on the next table turns out to be friendlier, and indeed more cosmopolitan, than the food. His name is Bjorn Thorvaldson, and he's in the Butter Agribusiness. "You're from Australia?" he says. "My mother's cousin emigrated there. Well, New Zealand, actually. My nephew's in Los Angeles. And my half-sister lives in Perth." "Have you been over to see her?" I ask. "Vell, no," he replies. "I don't like flying." "What do you think of Australia?" "Well," he says, "they were good to us in 1945." He pauses. "You know, it's a long way away."

And from the Australian Steakhouse it does seem very distant. Indeed, the whole messy and diverse concept of the Pacific Rim seems very distant. Around Copenhagen, there is nothing but the Baltic and the mud flats of Jutland. Beyond that, there is only Poland, Germany and Belgium, where the speed limit, the price of petrol or the sales tax might vary by a percentage point or two but in essence everything would be entirely familiar to a Dane, even down to the (minute) size of the portions in the local Australian Steakhouse.

"Where do most people round here come from?" I ask Bjorn. "Round here, probably." And he's right. Mass migration around Europe ceased almost twenty generations ago. In Copenhagen, there is as little to remind the blonde population of its Teutonic roots as the darkhaired population has to remind it of the Tartars: Stolichnaya Vodka, Carlsberg Beer and Olaf's Vrische Seafood, where each table has a miniature mug of Genuine Viking Mead nestling between the ketchup and the mustard. That's about it.

Of course, Copenhagen has an elite who travel all over Asia. But less than one-one hundredth of all Europeans have been east of Bangkok, and in Denmark the proportion is much lower. One suspects the Pacific Rim geography of many people here goes no further than the Ice Creams:

Tahitian Delight
South Sea Fruit Ice

That morning, the Kristeligt Dagblad has one paragraph from Australia. Indeed, major disasters aside, foreign news generally consists solely of inter-European interaction. And Copenhagen is a chunky-sized city, far more worldly than the other towns in the area, such as Aalborg, Glostrup and Svendborg. In all of them, an Australian visitor can expect a warm welcome, because Denmark is like that. But the locals might be just as charming to a visitor from outer space, who would be only a fraction more exotic.

Is this just how it is in the hinterland, far removed from the more sophisticated dinner tables of Brussels and Starsbourg? Not necessarily, when Brussels is run by Georges Chirac of France, Tim Blair of England, Gerhard Schroede of Germany, not to mention Hanne Severinsen., from Denmark herself, and "Gorgeous George" Galloway, hero of the Red/Green Coalition, who is sometimes suspected of coming from outer space. You may not feel comfortable with the fact that the future of the planet should be decided by the representatives of voters who know so little about it. A good many senior PacRim politicians share that concern.

At times over the past few weeks, Brussels has seemed almost like an enemy capital, certainly less comfortable for an Australian than Copenhagen, where people do not follow the nuances of international diplomacy. Last month, the EU President coined the phrase "Coalition of the Lackeys" for his unholy trinity of the US, Australia and England. The Copenhagen papers may not have fully reported the reaction of the PacRim's foreign ministers. Goh Chok Tong of Singapore said it was "simplistic"; Alexander Downer of Australia said alliance partners could not be characterised as obedient satellites; America's own Donald Rimsfeld said the speech had more to do with the European Parliament elections than intercontinental politics; Eugene Chien, the Taiwanese Foreign Minister, called it "absolutist" as well as simplistic.

The response was brisk. The Paris Match reported that the EU President was fuming about "People missing an opportunity to keep their mouths shut". Chancellor Schroeder accused Americans of "Texas Cowboy Vigilantism". Jean-Marie Le Pen stated that the American Zionists and Australian Convicts should stay out of European Internal Affairs. The French PM Jacqes Chirac baffled Chinese interpreters last week by using the phrase "Anglophone Conspiracy" in a private meeting in Beijing, though it was not entirely clear who was the phoney.

The kennel of leftwingers who snarl daily in the Franfurter Allgemeine have frothed more rabidly: "It is usual for parents to control their offspring. But in the instance of global geopolitics, the situation has been totally reversed. Our mature - if somewhat brash - children against Father Europe again rebelling are," wrote Martin Gruss, in tortuously teutonic tenses. Alain Bayeaux accused the Australians, in particular, of "arrogance and anger" born of an inferiority complex. Chirac's attack, said Juan Diego y Garcia, "might have been taken as a declaration of war except that the Australians, concerned with selling wool and wheat, are too busy raping Mother Earth and engaging in unashamed Capitalism". Willhelm Krystalnacht, editor of Der Speigel, summed up the differences more elegantly: "Well, the Anglophones do believe that there is an axis of evil in the world. It's just that they believe the axis of evil is our Fraternal Socialist Allies, North Korea, Syria and Iran.."

PacRim embassies have been playing all this down, which is their job. With a world-weary air, they say that intercontinental relations have often been touchy, most recently in the 1980s over the Soviet gas pipeline and over the Balkans in the early days of the Clinton administration. And it is true that as late as 1998, which nostalgists now regard as a sunlit era of Euro-Pacific amity, an article in Foreign Affairs moaned: "Antisemitism and America-Bashing are back in fashion all over Eirope."

"Iraq policy is in process at the moment," said one Thai diplomat. "And during the process there are always arguments. What matters is that we agree on the end product. And there is every sign that we will." One experienced Brussels source described this view as "Merde", adding, "Relations now are worse than anyone can ever remember. It has become very fashionable in the middle reaches of government to beat up on the Americans as being uncultured barbarians. That's especially true in the Quai D'Orsay, but it's true in most of the European Parliament too."

"We're on the edge of the abyss," said Dr Strabismus of the Council of Europe. "Whether we step into it remains to be seen. I think a lot of Anglophones have underestimated the paradigm shift that has taken place in Europe since September 11. I think even most Christian Democrats now see the internal debate as solely one about method and tactics, Sharia now or Sharia later."

There is a fundamental dichotomy between the two sides that in some ways dates back to the very founding of the European Union, when the Second World in general, with the exceptions of Quebec and New Orleans, was uncultured and materialistic. Brussels politicians are especially conscious that Anglophone armies had to come across the Atlantic twice in the 20th century to settle Europe's quarrels. Those living on the Pacific Rim are inclined to think that the Europeans, having mainly surrendered in the last two world wars, are still determined on a course of "Peace at any Price".

In Denmark, the Pacific might seem like a distant fairyland. PacRimmers in Brussels, even New Caledonians, are inclined to see the notion of Pacific Rim unity more positively than they might at home; exile, however benign, breeds a sense of solidarity. And perhaps no single group of people outside Singapore has been as enthusiastic about the idea of South-East Asian unity as the traditional liberal-minded Canberra elite clustered round the Department of Foreign Affairs and restaurants a great deal fancier than the Australian Steakhouse.

Yet in reality the Pacific Rim Treaties seem to harden European colonial attitudes. When Fischer initially responded to the massed ranks of foreign ministers, he was genuinely sorrowful that his friends Colin and Alexander should have misunderstood things so. His tone of voice when referring to Downer implied that the ASEAN was not a significant enough player to be worth considering.

For the past half-century, American disunity has been the European elite's favoured solution to ensure that they could peacefuilly surrender to dictatorship a third time. After all, it works on this continent, doesn't it? Now that the Pacific Rim has attained a sort of political and economic reality, the Europeans are having even more trouble taking it seriously than the Americans. Antenne 5 News recently described Singapore as "un isle picturesque dans le Straits du Malac". So much for a vibrant industrial economy in a country with a per-capita income exceeding France's.

The cadet version of the Quai D'Orsay is at the Sorbonne, Paris's most famous hall of Academe, where the school for foreign service offers degrees that are a traditional route into the Corps Diplomatique. The undergraduates there are clever, worldly, well travelled, and completely uncritical of the thrust of European policy. I talked to some the other day and asked them to play word association.

They responded very readily to the USA and Americans: "MacDonalds, Hollywood, Cadillacs....Berkeley... Michael Moore... Gore Vidal... Michael Jackson... Jerry Lewis.. Ku Klux Klan...Cowboys...Capitalists!" They were just as quick shouting out about Japan and the Japanese: "Sushi... Kung Fu(sic)...Tea Cermonies...Hari-Kiri....Cars... Geisha...". But they seemed almost Denmark-vague when asked about the Pacific Rim as a whole: "Kangaroos... Rice.. Desert Islands...". Someone added, "They enjoy life more," then the answers petered out.

In Denmark, people might imagine that Australia and New Zealand are much the same thing. But in Brussels, the Pacific Rim's pretensions to unity seem to be treated with some contempt. Long before De Gaulle came to town, it was commonplace here to say that the Pacific does not matter to the Europeans any more - except as a convenient place to let off Atomic Bombs so no radiation will reach Europe.

It is, in part, a problem of success. Europeans have turned away from the Pacific Rim because the end of the cold war has enabled them to do so. "We're drifting apart because the relationship has achieved its fundamental purpose," says Uwe Daalder of the Bruecken Institut. "For the past 50 years, America has been the focus of European attention. We now have an Interventionist and Democratic Hyper-power. From that perspective, Europe is Finished." But there is a second part to this. "September 11 confirmed the world-view of the European Union," says Daalder. "They believed that they could hide behind America's military umbrella and that proved it. Apart from Madrid. (a long pause) America thinks the threats are more imminant and immediate. Furthermore, America emphasises Democracy and Human Rights, partly because they see Dictatorships as breeding-grounds for Terrorism. The Europeans emphasise collaboration and bribery. Making out like bandits. Swiss Bank Accounts."

It is, however, easier to claim that the Pacific Rim does not matter than to claim that America or China or Australia don't matter. Europe may not care about the Pacific. But the parts of the Pacific Rim are still greater than the whole. When it comes to it, would the Europeans really surrender meekly to Islamic Extremism without the US cavalry being ready to rescue them from their folly? The Americans insist that the need for action is fully accepted not only in the European Parliament, but also in NATO.

Militarily, Europe can now take on Upper Volta, or possibly the Central African Republic, but it would be a difficult fight. But the colonial psychology is different. One influential Euro-MP (not from Denmark) was musing the other day: "Sure, we can adopt Sharia. But people still think of Winston Churchill. I think it would be politically difficult and perhaps impossible." It might, in short, go down badly at every one of the dozens of branches of the Australian Steakhouse.

The original Guardian Article is even more hilarious, as the names and quotes are real.

BTW the Australian Steakhouse chain in Copenhagen really wasn't that bad when I last visited one of them. Just steer (sorry) clear of the meat (quite easy, it's finding it on the plate that's difficult). One of the better Northern European Nosheries.

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