Nationalism and Europe’s Turn to the Right

In the 1990s nationalism and right-wing radicalism in Europe were considered things of the past. An increasingly enlarged, and a somewhat more integrated, European Union was usually regarded as an inclusive political project. Having tamed the beast of nationalism, the EU was seen to guarantee the cosmopolitan and democratic future of European nations. Even the Yugoslav wars did not shake this conviction. After all, they mainly concerned the Balkans, a peculiar region considered to be Europe’s alter ego, as Maria Todorova aptly remarked, and often represented as “non-European Europe”. A black sheep’s misconduct, though trying, would not be allowed to sully the family reputation.

Almost thirty years later, nationalism and right-wing populism have become powerful political factors throughout the continent today. Nationalist and far right politicians have been propelled into government in several western and central European countries. They have all embarked on a more or less common authoritarian project. At its dark centre stand two bogymen: the denouncement of the European Union (along with the power of transnational elites ruling national politics) and the demonization of refugees trying to flee to Europe.

If anything, the new European nationalism is staunchly anti-elite/establishment as well as xenophobic and majoritarian. Issues of sovereignty and identity are prominent in the public discourse, though how these are being instrumentalized by right wing forces varies from country to country. While in some, blatantly fascist parties have entered the parliament; in others, right-wing populists have come to power and are ruling the country. And elsewhere nationalist agendas have become part of conservative mainstream politics, as Brexit amply revealed.

This remarkable political shift has been often attributed to the increasing precarisation of large parts of European working populations as a result of neoliberal globalisation. Indeed, the meteoric rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which has become the third strongest political force in Greece during a period of generalised impoverishment and precarisation, would appear to support such a view. However, the remarkable electoral successes of far-right nationalist and xenophobic parties in countries, which have been largely spared the worst of the recent financial crisis, has led many scholars to conclude that the main impetus of this worrying political turn to the right may not be an actual economic loss but rather the fear of it.

Be that as it may, the current strength of right-wing nationalism in Europe is undoubtedly related to the deep crisis of the European project as well. For over a decade, there is a growing conviction among many that Europe is incapable of successfully addressing the acute problems facing its citizens. Reclaiming the nation-state is considered by many of them as a way to regain control over their own lives. In other words, national sovereignty is viewed as a pathway to self-determination –the motto of the Brexit campaign ‘Take control back’ succinctly expresses this expectation.

At the present historical juncture, the strength of nationalism is also due to the fact that the nation-state appears to be the only effective structure of governance available. In turn, its weakness is that the same nation-state is manifestly incapable of meeting the challenges of the present. Ironically, people are willing to overlook this weakness, due to their disappointment with the EU’s inability to tackle their pressing problems. A persuasive European alternative along with a successful reform of the distant, technocratic EU would considerably weaken the appeal of nationalism.

Notwithstanding the hostile stereotypes of the European Union in current nationalist narratives all over Europe, it is important to point out that historically nationalism and a sense of belonging to Europe have not been inevitably opposed to one another. While it is true for France, and especially for Germany, that a commitment to Europe implied a (partial) renunciation of nationalism, for countries of the European periphery a strong sense of European identity was an essential component of nationalist ideology; belonging to the nation meant being a member of the “family of civilised peoples of Europe”. The current tension between a sense of European belonging and nationalism is thus rather an exception in many regions of the continent. Viewed in historical perspective, it is a very specific nationalism and a very specific image of Europe that have come to be seen as incompatible today.

A promising response to the challenges of nationalism and right-wing ideology in Europe requires that they be viewed as European problems demanding a European response. Nothing would be more fatal than the resurgence of a symbolic geography that would represent some regions of Europe as more receptive and/or vulnerable to such tendencies as opposed to others that are immune to right wing ethno-nationalism. It is instructive to recall how the demonization of southern European countries in the course of the financial crisis a decade ago gave a decisive boost to nationalist forces in the South as well as the North of Europe. Moreover, we should not forget that both staunch Europeans and radical nationalists participate in Europe-wide networks. Both cosmopolitan Europeanism and nationalist introversion were in the past, as they are now, products of transnational European dialogue and entanglements.

Evangelos Karagiannis