Before the EU was forced to pull the ad, it offered the world a glimpse into two fundamental problems with the European project.
By now, the viral disaster of a European Union TV ad, wherein various non-Western martial artists confront a white brunette, who symbolizes Europe, has made its way around the internet a few times. The European commission recalled the ad Tuesday and apologized for any offense. Here it is, above, an ugly masterpiece of stereotypical dualities. Male to female. Armed to unarmed. Barbaric to civilized. Brute force to intelligence (the men menace with sword and muscle; the woman thinks herself into a circle).
This ad isn't just racist. It's also totally incoherent. What is a lady in a yellow and blue jumpsuit (the colors in the EU) being threatened by foreigners, beating them back by multiplying herself in a ring around them, supposed to mean? Stand unified so we can keep the evil immigrants in? Don't hang out in abandoned train stations? Thank God we shelled out for the Kill Bill costumes?
The European commission's explanation was as follows: "The clip featured typical characters for the martial arts genre: kung fu, capoeira and kalaripayattu masters; it started with demonstration of their skills and ended with all characters showing their mutual respect, concluding in a position of peace and harmony."
A position of "peace and harmony" where the identical white brunettes seal off all the dangerous non-white men, apparently.
Idiocy and breathtaking racism aside, this ad highlights two real and pretty serious problems in the European Union right now. The first is one of identity. With the proposed entrance of Turkey and now the possible exit of Greece from the euro, the E.U. is having to decide what it's actually about. The traditional narrative, the one politicians are eager to promote, is that it's all about politics and prosperity -- state-based, in other words, rather than nation-based. This ad is, whether intentionally or not, part of a certain identity-based trend. Opposition to Turkish entrance and the nasty north-south rhetoric in the sovereign debt crisis both suggest, in fact, that it's about ethnicity, or at the very least a common culture. It's normal, if not particularly pretty, for ethnic tension to surface in times of economic hardship, as I've pointed out before, but eventually the E.U. is going to have to resolve the politics-versus-ethnicity question. This ad was a sharp veer off course for a commission whose message, up until now, has been more about harmony and cooperation.
The second problem this ad hilariously and unintentionally draws attention to is one of money. This is not an ad that suggests much of a budget for political consultants. In fact, it barely suggests a two-tiered editing process. I'd be interested to know how such a concept got past the brainstorming phase, and, even more amusing to contemplate, what ideas it beat out (something with turbans and the Marseillaise, perhaps?).
As an attempt to distract from Europe's current financial mess and highlight the union's strengths, this ad is a disaster. The picture we're left with is of political leadership that can't even toss together a couple of bucks and an extra pair of eyes for a decent storyboard, let alone deal with its race problem.
Heather Horn is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. She is a former features editor and staff writer for The Atlantic Wire, and was previously a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.