Why 'exceptionalism' is a word all Europeans should stop using

No matter how much countries strive to impress one another by trying to convince everybody else that they are special (and, by implication, others aren’t), no matter how much this term is banded around, ‘exceptionalism’ is a word all Europeans should stop using – it’s poisonous, argues Alessio Colonnelli, translator and commentator on European political and social affairs.

"I only had one packet of them [pills] because we’d bought them in Spain, where the pharmacists wear reassuring white coats and talk like doctors,” says the acclaimed author Matt Haig in Reasons to stay alive (2015) as he describes being back in England after becoming ill in Ibiza.

This was Spain painted as an exception, even though chemists right across Europe generally don white coats and tend to be well-spoken like the Spanish ones. After all, they have five-year pharmacy degrees. Being the exception, or exceptional if you like, is all relative; it depends on the angle we look from. Or so it seems.

Let’s dig deeper. On Wednesday 27 May, I heard on the BBC World Service radio that women’s football in Germany was about to resume. They will have played their first post-lockdown matches by now. The men’s version is well under way too, even if football with no fans in the stands is football gone weird. But this is a separate discussion and I shall leave it for another day. The important thing is that in the absence of any other games, anywhere else, Bundesliga action is getting all the attention – a big story.

The BBC thus interviewed a German journalist eager to tell listeners all about this great sports exception. When asked by a colleague in the London studio, how come Germany was able to do this, the Berlin-based hack gave the following as the main reason: “Other countries were not as organised.”

There was an echo of Vorsprung durch Technik in that answer, the famous slogan by a Bavarian manufacturer of upmarket cars. But there was also, I believe, exceptionalism in disguise – the belief of being the exception, as in being exceptional rather than the odd one out. Many Germans must be aware of Germany’s standing in the world, propped up by wide-spread images of efficiency, reliability and solvency. In this sense, the German reporter’s view about others’ self-inflicted chaos is probably shared by millions.

Exceptionalism permeates everything, even football. It seeps through your thoughts without asking for your permission. Exceptionalism percolates naturally just like coffee does; similarly, it is also a stimulant. It’s addictive. The relating superiority complex – hard to say if this feeds off national exceptionalism or the other way round – turns into pride that you’re keen to display at any given opportunity. Prestigious international media like the BBC provide the perfect platform.

Never mind the fact that Italy – a trailblazer in the battle against Covid-19 and with a much higher death toll to deal with – is about to get its footy back too. So is Britain. And perhaps neither should: the football industry’s functionality, in these times of crisis, is hardly a measure of how organised a country is. Hardly a measure ever, perhaps.

Here’s another example of how relative being exceptionally unique actually is. In November 2018, a hundred years since the end of WWI, US President Donald Trump came to Europe. According to Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, his visit was a complete fiasco. “The trip itself cost millions of taxpayer dollars, yet Trump chose to skip a key ceremony honoring U.S. war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because it was raining,” he wrote in Foreign Policy that month. “By choosing to stay warm and dry in his hotel room while other world leaders acknowledged the heroism of those who fought and died for freedom, Trump gave the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’ a whole new meaning.”

Thankfully, not everyone is taking exceptionalism seriously. It’s a good thing indeed to try and neutralise it. Humour is one way of achieving this. Exceptionalism can do harm. It was invoked by London on many occasions to justify its requests for a special status within the European Union, which slowed down the organisation’s evolution; the EU is today floundering because it’s underdeveloped. Take its non-existing common fiscal policy, for example. The ensuing fiscal dumping practices indulged by various countries – the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Ireland, the UK, Malta, etc. – means that others have been able to raise fewer taxes. The ensuing damage inflicted on welfare infrastructures of some EU members, particularly in the south, is unquantifiable.

Professor Walt cleverly turned exceptionalism upside-down. Trump, who portrays his country as superior for being exceptional, in the same manner a number of English politicians do with Britain, was rightly ridiculed in a truly superior American magazine. I say ‘rightly’ because such comments put things in a different, healthier perspective. Very healthy. Exceptionalism, after all, comes from ‘exceptional’: someone or something that has a particular quality, usually a good quality, to an unusual high degree.

Now, which country is more exceptional than others? To my knowledge, and I admit it may be exceptionally limited, all countries have things to offer that are especially good. For this reason, all countries are exceptional. That’s why so many millions of us like travelling abroad – to experience exceptional, exotic circumstances. Ex ex ex. It’s all in a Latin prefix meaning ‘outside of’.

So, for a moment, let’s step out of ourselves – collectively, as nations – to see that we are all exceptional for different reasons. There is a fundamental beauty in this, I find. How did they manage to turn exceptionalism into such an ugly word?


  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.


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