The chicken or the egg?


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EVER since the crisis first manifested in the United States in 2007, initially in the banking system and private financial institutions and subsequently transforming into an economic, social, political and, therefore, well beyond a financial crisis in the European states, the idea that the present difficulties serve to reinforce nationalist movements and weaken the construction of Europe has gained currency.

This idea is based on a narrow conception of the crisis. It is possible to advance another contrasting idea, namely what is referred to today as the ‘crisis’ is only one episode in a more far-reaching change which began, perhaps in 1971, when the United States ended the Bretton Woods Agreement by suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold, or in 1973 with the first oil crisis. This formulation does not fundamentally modify our question since many of the contemporary nationalist movements in Europe came to the fore or gained momentum in the 1980s when this transformation became clearer, and well before the present ‘crisis’.1

Let us, therefore, start with a proposition which appears to be obvious: it is true that the present situation does contribute to strengthening nationalism. Given the present difficulties of Europe as such, and of its member countries, it is indeed easier to invoke nationalisms in the defence of national interests against Brussels, in particular its regulations, technocracy and incapacity to re-launch economic growth and ensure employment. Other political approaches, possibly rooted in the extreme left, too may similarly advance the need for protectionism when confronted with unemployment, closures and relocation of firms or policies of restriction which strangle the lower and middle classes. Such a response enables the combination of a set of specifically economic arguments with others that relate to national identity. And the strength of nationalisms is such that, today, their ideas exert an influence well beyond the circle of their electorate.

In times of crisis there is a certain logic in requesting that one’s country leave the euro, challenging the construction of Europe on the one hand, and demanding an end to immigration on the other, focusing on national identity and refusing anything which seems to undermine cohesion or the homogeneity of the nation, such as diversity, multiculturalism or Islam. From such a point of view it matters little that the proposed economic policy programmes are not very realistic; their main purpose seems to be to satisfy nationalist feelings and by taking recourse to economic reason add to the speeches of fear, hatred or resentment. For instance, is it not a pretext for reinstating frontiers and at the same time equally an excuse for reintroducing national control over the entry and exit of goods, capital and migratory flows, so as to protect one’s nation from the challenges of cosmopolitanism, Islamism and cultural practices which are enabled by the free movement of people, while, at the same time relaunching the economy?

The crisis promotes an ideology of a closed society which, at its core, furthers the anti-Europeanism of nationalists. The latter may only be a discourse, but to assume that it does not lead to any participation in public affairs may be premature. It can exert an influence on the political action of established parties, possibly even result in an authoritarian drift in politics, as evident in the Hungary of Viktor Orban.


Nationalist movements have at their core a proclivity to foreground cultural and historical resources, helping to establish them as important counterpoints to those in favour of the construction of Europe. A nation is a language, a past, a locus of memory, heroes and important people. It is revealed in museums, in monuments and is taught in school textbooks. It implies a culture, traditions, a literature and an artistic life. The nations of Europe are far from recent. They owe a lot to the Treaties of Westphalia, which in 1648 comprised the most influential nations at the time, providing a framework of political life, both nationally and internationally. They also owe a lot to the principle of cuiusregio, eiusreligio, which emerged in the same period: ‘whose realm, his religion’ (i.e., the religion of the ruler dictated the religion of the ruled). This principle, by associating each nation with a religion, further reinforces the importance of the nation as a framework when considering religion.

All this tends to be easily valorized in times of crisis when many of the common reference markers in collective life seem to be dissolving, challenging the very meaning of existence. More so in an environment of growing unemployment and escalating economic difficulties, and where we no longer have, as in the past, a powerful working class movement confronting employers and where the struggle could, so to speak, not merely provide resources for other conflicts, but also frame political discussion, intellectual life and even geopolitics. To put it succinctly, we are now deprived of the class struggle.


There is indeed a considerable contrast between the construction of Europe and its lack of cultural and historical depth. True, it is possible to advance a history of Europe, to refer to Charlemagne, sometimes presented as the ‘father of Europe’, or Erasmus and his Plea for Peace, Dante, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Ernst Jünger or, yet again, recall the project of extending the French Revolution to the whole of Europe – a dream which Napoleon transformed into a nightmare. One could also evoke the Writers’ European Parliament, created at the initiative of the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, José Saramago, and the appeals which, from time to time, remind us of the intellectual importance of Europe. Along with Ulrich Beck, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and a few others, I too signed one of these recent petitions calling for a Europe of ‘actively employed citizens’ and against the Europe of the elites and technocrats (Le Monde, 2 May 2012).

But this sort of evocation does not match the emotional appeal of the nationalist constructions, even though the European Union plays a cultural role which is by no means negligible. In some spheres it has set up programmes for assistance, as the site, the official site of the European Union, indicates. It facilitates financing for those working in the cultural sector, in particular the less well endowed; it supports music schools, and (as is visible in Venice) helps the modernization or conservation of theatre. Every year it designates two cities as the ‘European Capital of Culture’, providing them with the means to take fresh initiatives. But all this is not sufficient to help construct a strong cultural unity.

Some partisans of Europe propose a reference to the ‘Christian values’ of Europe as a common resource. But this religious invocation is much more politically divisive than a reference which mobilizes collectively. It is not only rejected by the Left, it raises the suspicion of pushing ‘projects’ which have nothing to do with history – a fear of Islam, the refusal to envisage the entry of Turkey into Europe.


The European Union was recently given the Nobel Prize for Peace, suggesting that Europe may have a powerful moral legitimacy to confront nationalisms. This does not necessarily follow. At the outset, the construction of Europe was based on the mechanisms for economic solidarity for making war impossible between nations that had until recently been fighting each other in World War Two. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) with six member countries (France, Germany Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), was the first major creation of this project. Only thereafter did Europe endeavour to appear in the eyes of the world as the domain par excellence of democracy and human rights – a real endeavour, even if it was not really backed up by a European army or diplomacy. Nevertheless, even today, the major justification for Europe is economic: it is in this sphere that it is judged. Its moral specificity is not obvious and its founding project appears more or less divested of the initial moral inspiration such that it is no longer even on the agenda. Just recollect the helplessness demonstrated by the European Union at the time of the ethnic cleansing and the genocidal violence in former Yugoslavia.

Subsequently in 2003, Europe missed an exceptional opportunity to reaffirm its moral basis which had inspired its birth half a century earlier, by refusing to stand against war, even though public opinion almost everywhere in Europe was opposed to the military operations which the United States wished to conduct against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Even if some heads of state, beginning with Tony Blair and José Maria Aznar, chose to support George W. Bush in this adventure, a powerful moral movement could have been shaped at the European level to refuse support to or allow preparation for a war by exposing the fraudulent arguments advanced by those in favour.


Finally, today, at the democratic level, the European Union presents some serious shortcomings. Its institutions do not satisfactorily respond to the problem of political representation and are viewed by electors as being far too removed from their real, material demands, thus making it impossible for them to exert even the slightest control over the decisions taken. In short, the European Union appears to be much too exhausted to go on.

At this point in our analysis it would be fair to state that it is not the nationalisms which constrain or prevent the European Union, but rather the contrary: the weaker the Union, the less capable it is of responding to the critical economic challenges of the moment, and the greater the susceptibility of its weak cultural or historical identity. This being the case, in contrast, the greater the opportunity there is for nationalisms to spread. To posit a direct link between the rise of nationalisms and difficulties with the European Union would, however, be a dangerous step. It is therefore preferable to reserve judgment.


In the first instance, the rise of nationalisms in Europe can only be partially explained by the crisis of the idea of Europe or the European reality and owes a great deal more to sources that are other than directly European. After all, it is Switzerland, a country which does not belong to the European Union, that most exemplifies Islamophobic, xenophobic and racist nationalism in Europe. It is in this country that a proposal to outlaw the construction of minarets, launched by a national populist party, the Swiss People’s Party (UDC) and a small right wing Christian party, the Federal Democratic Union (UDF), was adopted by a referendum in November 2009 with 57% of the vote.

Let us now turn to the two main types of nationalist movements in Europe. Some function at the level of the nation state, proposing a homogenous conception of the nation along populist lines with hints of political references to the extreme right. This is the case with the Front National in France (the FN), the Freedom Party of Austria (the FPO), the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands (the PVV), the Danish People’s Party, the Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) in Hungary, the True Finns, the Progress Party in Norway, among others. These parties not only garner significant votes in the elections, they are also often represented in the European Parliament, and may even participate in an electoral coalition exercising power – as was the case when the FPO (Austria) allied with the Conservative Austrian People’s Party (the ÖVP) in 1999.


The others challenge the conventional idea and form of the nation state by appealing to sub-national entities of the nation. They aspire for greater autonomy, or even independence, without conforming to the image of regionalist movements. They may, perhaps, intend to endow their nation with the attributes of a state. Such is the case, for example, of the Basque and Catalan nationalists in Spain, the Scots in the United Kingdom, the Corsicans in France, the Flemish in northern Belgium or the Padania of the Northern League in Italy. These actors constitute a greater challenge for their respective nation states which they dispute than for Europe. They are not necessarily anti-European, nor anti-democratic; it so happens that they pronounce themselves in favour of the construction of Europe, specifically to leap higher, so to speak, than the nation state, for example in legislative matters.

This is particularly the case with Catalan nationalism; we have recently seen that in the present context it has asserted itself demonstrating considerable strength. According to the press, there were 1,500,000 demonstrators in Barcelona on 11 September 2012, chanting the slogan of ‘IN-INDE-Independancia’. The concern of these nationalisms is to weaken the nation state within which they have to function today – possibly to emancipate themselves from it entirely, not to end any link with the European Union. Finally, nationalisms denounce globalization more than the construction of Europe; their target is the global movement of goods and people rather than the European sphere.

They thrive on issues and discussions specific and internal to the nation state in which they function. They attack the national intellectual and political elites and the institutional actors in the political systems rather than the European technocrats. They too attack Islam – a religion whose rise owes nothing to the construction of Europe. They are xenophobic, much more towards non-European foreigners, from Africa or Asia, than those who come from other European countries, stressing that the latter are White, or Christian, like them. They support rising birth rates and, while they have modernized culturally, for example in relation to homosexuality, as we have seen in the Netherlands with Pim Fortuyn and even in France with Marine Le Pen, they favour a traditional concept of the family – themes which can prosper without having to challenge the construction of Europe. Note that Nicholas Sarkozy cultivated the Front National voters, especially in view of the 2012 presidential elections in France, without ever calling into question his attachment to the European idea. All this, once again, forces us to qualify the idea of a direct link between the rise of nationalisms and the weakening of Europe.


Some speak in the name of shopkeepers, artisans and people in business whose economic difficulties are seen as linked to the working of the state, the tax system, the support extended by the community to provide for those who do not wish to contribute to the economic effort. Almost everywhere, these movements are aimed at possible minorities and immigrants, who are seen as taking advantage of state protection and support, and not Brussels. For regional nationalisms, the target is usually the poor or declining regions, which in their eyes are parasites within the country where they are located.

For instance, in Italy the Northern League no longer wishes to be weighed down by the millstone of the Mezzogiorno; in Scotland the aim is to prevent the oil wealth from the North Sea being shared by the United Kingdom as a whole. This type of thinking is summarily extended to the European Union by the nationalist movements in the richest countries: the Union is said to be advantageous for the poor countries, who take advantage of it, beginning with Greece. In this perspective, European solidarity is seen to function to the detriment of the economies of the most serious and hard-working nations.


Nationalisms in Europe are thus borne along by forces which are themselves heterogeneous. They may be fundamentally associated with extreme right ideologies, nostalgic for a fascist, Nazi or brutally colonial past. They may be primarily populist, in which instance they adopt a mythical discourse which aims to personify either the whole nation, or alternatively only one of its components composed of ‘little people’ struggling against the ‘rich and powerful’. Yet again, they may attempt to enter the democratic arena by participating in elections, engaging and negotiating with other forces, and even participating in local, regional or national authorities or by being represented at Brussels which necessarily tones down their potential extreme right dimensions.

In these situations the responsibility of the European Union is considerable. By providing space to the representatives of nationalist movements as participant members, the European Parliament encourages them to move in a democratic direction. It integrates them into a system which, till then, they had only criticized from without; by implementing firm measures when confronted with possible nationalist deviations of a member state, for example by suspending rights of an institutional nature, as happened in the case of Austria for eight months. The EU exerted pressure which helped dampen the extreme nationalist fervour of the government by reminding it that its stated values have no place for racism and xenophobia, anti-Semitism or intolerance.


Finally, it is not only nationalisms or extreme right national populisms which thrive in situation of crisis. There are also movements, or components of larger movements which have nothing to do with the closed, xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic ideologies which characterize these nationalisms and other national populisms. This is the case, in particular, with political forces which claim to be to the left ‘of the left’, as is the case in France with the Front de Gauche led by Jean Luc Mélenchon and which is a mixture of various leftist tendencies and what remains of the French Communist Party. Forces of this sort are firmly anti-racist and, in some instances, even take on nationalist parties as their opponent, as we saw in France during the Presidential election campaign in 2012.

In fact, Europe can only efficiently counter nationalisms by providing a demonstration of its effectiveness in the eyes of its citizens who have difficulty in perceiving how Europe is helping engage with the pressures of globalization, and by relaunching itself politically in the face of the present economic crisis, finding solutions which combine budgetary rigour and a return to growth. This can only be done if Europe is made much more democratic, by giving the European Parliament an active role in the nominations at the European Commission and by making of the commission a political actor, and not only a technocratic one.



1. See my contribution, ‘Financial Crisis or Societal Mutation?’ in Manuel Castells, João Caraça and Gustavo Cardoso (eds.), Aftermath. Oxford University Press, 2012.