It is something of a tragic irony that the European Union – originally constructed to lay to rest the atavistic nationalist impulses of the 20th century – is today behind the resurgence of such feelings across much of Europe. The British referendum that has delivered a vote for “Brexit” is the latest, dramatic indication that this nationalism is here to stay.
This nationalism has brewed largely in reaction to how the EU has evolved over the past few decades. What started as a common market grew to embrace a single currency, the Schengen area and integration in justice and home affairs. All this has diluted core aspects of national sovereignty: states have less control over macro-economic policy, borders and people.
The EU also enlarged to embrace Central and Eastern Europe. The inclusion of 12 new member-states with distinct histories, economic structures and democratic traditions has rendered the decision-making process at the EU level all the more cumbersome. At the same time, it has made EU policy all the less responsive to public opinion. These transformations have been very disquieting for voters in certain countries – like the UK.
But what we have witnessed in the UK is part of a much broader shift in public attitudes towards the EU from what analysts have called a “permissive consensus” to a “constraining dissensus”. In the past, European leaders quietly pursued integration in such areas as agriculture and the public paid little attention. More recently though, leaders have sought to take collective decisions in areas such as trade in services, banking or asylum. But they have to bear in mind that the voters back home are more likely to pay more attention and to be sceptical.
Nationalists of all stripes
This scepticism draws strength from the perception that the EU is responsible for the sundry ills that underlie the malaise felt by many European voters. Economic dislocation and industrial restructuring, austerity and privatisation, unemployment and job insecurity, fear of immigration, and a more general sense of vanishing influence over the decisions that affect their daily lives. All feed into the negative feelings people have about the EU.
Euroscepticism is found on the extremes of the political spectrum. On the left, voters and parties see the EU as a neoliberal plot. It exists only to serve the big businesses that lobby in Brussels for favourable legislation. For the right, the EU is a bureaucratic behemoth that imposes excessive regulation and threatens ancient national identities by encouraging labour migration. When these two viewpoints merge, as they have in UKIP’s political base, they are powerfully toxic.
And UKIP is only one of many such parties. Similar rhetoric and patterns of political support underpin the success of others, too. The Front National in France, the New Democrats in Sweden and the Finns Party in Finland have all been watching events in the UK closely. Some have even called for their own referendums, hoping for a Frexit or a Swexit after Brexit. Some others tailor their euroscepticism to suit local idiosyncracies. Take the Dutch Freedom Party’s virulently anti-islamic platform for example, or violent action promoted by Greece’s Golden Dawn.
Rejecting the mainstream
But in all cases, what we have witnessed with the rise of euroscepticism is the recrudescence of a robust form of populist nationalism. It will endure because it maps onto and reinforces existing social fault-lines.
Most importantly, it depends on the existence of divisions between the winners and losers of globalisation in the 21st century. It thrives on the different experiences of the educated, well-travelled polyglots working in highly-skilled professions and the immobile and stunted individuals left behind by global economic transformations.
Whether they work in low-paid jobs in the port towns of Essex or claim unemployment benefits in Lille, those left behind share a common feeling of despair and frustration that has yielded a visceral rejection of foreign bodies.
In certain countries, such as Poland or the Nordics, social and ideological divisions also map onto geographical ones. Patriotic countryside dwellers view their effete metropolitan neighbours – and their liberal values – with suspicion.
And, in the absence of a credible socialist alternative to protect them, many have turned to the more basic instinct of solidarity with the native and dominant ethnic kin: the English, the French, the Germans. In all countries, what underlies this nationalism is the clustering of individuals with left-wing economic interests and culturally conservative values that diverge tremendously from the mainstream.
Not backing down
So, when these sentiments are bundled together by entrepreneurial political actors such as UKIP, they become endowed with a political flavour that is reminiscent of the nationalisms of the past. It holds a view of the country’s history that glorifies national democratic control and it espouses a reactionary return to this past, no matter the economic costs.
It is sincerely anti-intellectual, offers facile solutions to complex problems, prefers what it calls “plain-speaking” over a well-articulated elocution and is utterly unapologetic in its disdain for the establishment.
The main difference is that, in contrast with the past, democracy is now the only game in town. The systems in which these nationalist parties operate are (fairly) stable, and generational turnover should lead to the predominance of liberal values, suggesting that there is a ceiling on the pool of support from which they can draw.
However, even if democratic institutions themselves are not in question, democracy currently offers the mechanism through which these nationalist parties’ can contaminate the platforms of other mainstream parties. They can exert competitive pressures during local, national and European elections, forcing the bigger parties to shift their political offerings as they attempt to avoid losing voters.
So, unless significant domestic economic and social reforms can tackle the sharpening divisions upon which this populist nationalism is founded, it will persist for the foreseeable future.
And unless the EU can infuse its institutions with greater democratic legitimacy, it will continue to draw populist ire. Voters need to be able to identify with the people who make decisions on their behalf.
The UK may be the first country to leave the EU but it may not be the last. Europe’s new nationalism is here to stay.