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Europe

Could Mutual Ridicule be a Sign of Successful EU Integration?

The EU is not the first thing to come to mind when you think of something hilarious -- unless ridiculous policy decisions make you giggle. But as Europeans, laughing at fellow members could suggest a real togetherness.

Young people laughing

"Have you heard the one about the bloc which tried to get 27 nations to work together?"

A French mountaineer who met a group of Belgian climbers in the Pyrenees recently chose an unusual way of getting them to smile for a team photo.

"What do Belgians write at the bottom of their swimming pools? 'No smoking'," he quipped, and clicked the shutter as they laughed.

Whatever European Union supporters may say about the way the bloc has created a zone of peace and harmony across the continent, its citizens still like nothing better than making jokes about each other.

A montage of the European flag with a smily

Belgians laugh at their European neighbors

Thus Belgians form the butt of a huge stock of jokes both in France and in the Netherlands, where they are seen, according to need, as stupid, naive or obsessed with food and drink.

Belgians, in return, tell jokes about tight-fisted Dutch and arrogant French and Germans.

"What's the difference between God and a Frenchman? God doesn't think he's French," a typical joke runs.

A similar lack of neighborly affection also pervades the Baltic States, where Latvians and Lithuanians portray Estonians as slow.

"What is the definition of a waltz? It's Estonian hip hop," a Lithuanian joke says.

In England, famously, the Irish are the target.

The butt of the joke

A member of the NO campaign in The Lisbon Treaty Referendum celebrates the official result of The Lisbon Treaty Referendum in Dublin

The Irish actually had the last laugh

"An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman are put in front of a firing squad. The Englishman shouts 'earthquake!', and jumps over the wall in the confusion," one typical joke begins. "The Scotsman shouts 'flood!', and jumps over the wall in the confusion. The Irishman shouts 'fire!'," it concludes.

Academics say that such jokes usually only target nations with which the teller is familiar. Many are relatively innocuous, such as the Estonian joke about the neighboring Finns: "Two Finns buy a bottle of vodka. One says 'Cheers!' The other looks at him and says, 'Did you come here to talk or to drink?'"

But other jokes have more of an edge to them. In Latvia, for example, where relations between the Latvian majority and the large Russian minority can be openly hostile, jokes can be cruel.

"An American, a Russian and a Latvian are sitting in a train. The American takes one puff on a cigarette, throws it out of the window and boasts, 'Where I come from, we've got so many of those we can just chuck them away.' The Russian takes one swig from a vodka bottle, throws it out of the window and says the same thing.

"The Latvian thinks for a minute, then throws the Russian out of the window," the joke ends.

Love thy neighbor

German fans react at the end of the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain

"Is it too late to say we were Austria fans?"

And in Austria, despite its cultural and economic closeness to Germany, the jokes about Germans can be anything but affectionate.

"A German boy goes to Vienna for Euro 2008 with his family and decides he wants to support Austria. When he says so, his sister slaps him, his mother spanks him and his father punches him.

"'Now, have you learned your lesson?' the father asks.

"'Yes, Dad. I've only been an Austria fan for an hour and already I hate the Germans,' the boy replies."

But if such jokes make uneasy reading for EU leaders, there is still hope. After all, if humor is based on insulting people who are familiar with each other, what could be a better sign of European integration than this jest, which has its equivalents in many EU languages?

"In Heaven, they have French cooks, English policemen, German mechanics, Italian lovers and Swiss bankers. In Hell, they have English cooks, German policemen, French mechanics, Swiss lovers and Italian bankers."

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