Watching the pictures of Xavier Bettel circulate on Twitter last night, it struck me how much the etiquette of international diplomacy has changed. On the one hand, it’s a good thing, surely, that the public are getting to see the inner workings and dynamics of our leaders’ relationships with foreign nations. After all, within the Brexit vote was a challenge to remedy the lack of transparency within European politics.
But reading the celebration on Twitter of Bettel’s smug nod to the empty lectern at the press conference Boris Johnson had chickened out of, it felt less like transparency and more like a different kind of political pantomime.
Politicians have long known the power of the photo opportunity, using the press to get a message across. But it seems that the irresistible draw of ‘going viral’ has broken down all norms for politicians to talk about each other in public. President Trump is perhaps the best example of this breakdown in international statecraft, infamously calling London Mayor Sadiq Khan a ‘stone cold loser’ when he visited back in June. But a Trumpian Twitter style seems to have spread – Labour Party MP David Lammy is celebrated for his online presence, tweeting things like ‘If Trump did GCSEs he wouldn’t make it to sixth form’ as a means of gaining support.
Politicians are well aware that a kind of coarsening of commentary will go down well on the relatively simplified and febrile atmosphere of the 240-character Twitter world. Remember when Gavin Williamson told Russia to ‘go away and shut up’? What about when our current Prime Minister wrote a limerick about the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling him the ‘the wankerer from Ankara’?
Formal international diplomacy – the kind that favours pompous handshakes, red carpets and flashy dinners – is on the way out. Good riddance. But what is replacing it, this new age of Twitter bitching, doesn’t feel like a step forward. The Brexit negotiation process has been one the best (or worst) examples of this. From Donald Tusk Instagramming mocking pictures of Theresa May eating cake, joking about not giving her any ‘cherries’ to pick, to Belgian EU pundit Guy Verhofstadt brandishing a ‘bollocks to Brexit T-shirt’, it seems that politics is slowly deteriorating into an online playground battle. Serious times call for serious people – our politicians should remember that likes and retweets might go down well with the Twitterarti, but they don’t wash with the rest of us.