Opinion: Nationalism in Europe is already dead

, by Luc Landrot

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Opinion: Nationalism in Europe is already dead
Credit: Mediamodifier, Pixabay

The title of this piece is a provocative statement at a time when everyone can notice the rise of sovereignist and nationalist parties throughout the European continent. But are appearances not deceiving? Are we witnessing the swan song of nationalisms in Europe?

What strikes me about every nationalist victory in a European state is the readiness of all the nationalists in other states to claim the victory and applaud with both hands. They defend their European fellows as if they were from the same party. The last Italian elections were once again an occasion for outbursts from Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen or Reconquête of Eric Zemmour, who, for the latter, dream about a success of the “alliance of the right wing parties”, something they intend to reproduce in France. It was as if Italians and French people had the same aspirations and responded to the same political mechanisms. Same causes, same results. What an acknowledgment that they share a common destiny with their non-French European friends!

Their cultural battle seems already lost

Brexit gave them the fatal blow by showing that division only brought complexity, conflict, economic difficulties, shortages and eventually no prosperity or even improvement in democracy. Brexit has shown continental Europeans that the European Union (EU) may be dysfunctional, but being outside the EU is far worse.

In France, no one is promoting Frexit anymore in parties likely to get elected at a national level. In Italy, Meloni moderated her positions on the EU. All these nationalist parties that see themselves in charge, have all dropped the idea of an exit from the EU. They now talk about maintaining strong European cooperation between countries. Although endorsing intergovernmental and not federal Europe, this is another admission that no serious party can propose to leave the European Union anymore or they risk never winning an election. This is true especially in the heart of Europe, among the founding countries.

Wherever populism is on the rise, usually in its identity-based version, it is more the rejection of the elites, of the standardised global culture - as embodied in particular by the progressism of big cities - that is rejected, more than European unity. This is evidenced by opinion polls where, even if a significant minority rejects the EU, the majority is undecided or supports it. This does not prevent criticism, as federalists do. Even when federalism is mentioned, one in two French people would support a federal Europe (Ifop poll of 26 March 2022).

By rejecting traditional parties and globalist progressivism, the historically nationalist parties become the natural receptacle of these disagreements. Yet, as François Leray, President of the Union of European Federalists France states: since the EU has no voice to respond in national media, which is the most listened to in each state, it is the ideal scapegoat.

From culture, European momentum moves to the political sphere

The European political space remains embryonic but is developing. The French MEPs, from all parties, are increasingly involved and qualified. Gone are the days of Mélenchon, Peillon, Dati, Hortefeux, Marine Le Pen. Less and less, MEPs consider their function as a “siding” while they wait to be elected at national level.

However, European public space still lacks ways to fully develop. The European media are developing: Politico, Contexte, France TV Europe, etc., but political debates remain mostly national on a daily basis.

For the past two years, however, we have seen the beginning of a significant shift. The coronavirus pandemic and then the invasion of Ukraine have catalysed what was already in the making: Europeans share values - democracy, fundamental freedoms, rule of law, environmental and social issues - and are ready to defend them all together. The EU is at the forefront of the global crises that hit us (war, energy, climate, pandemic) and debates are moving to that level. The new candidate countries, which are begging to join the large European political family, have restored the EU’s image and put the emphasis back on its initial function: ensuring peace in Europe. This concept was thought to be obsolete, but it is now fully relevant again and so essential in the face of the return of empires.

China is closing in and becoming more radical, Putin is no longer holding back his desire to recreate the USSR and bring down the West, India does not want to choose the side of the democracies, the United States is ignoring the climate crisis and is spared by the energy crisis, or even benefiting from it.

The EU is an island and most Europeans realise the urgency of protecting themselves from external attacks.

In this context, sovereignist coalitions can increasingly be compared to the likes of US Republicans who reject the idea of too much power in the hands of ’Washington’, i.e. the federal state. For in any federation, there is tension between political actors pushing to keep political power as close to the citizens as possible (municipalities, regions, states) versus those who seek greater interventionism of the federal state in politics at all levels.

Thus, beyond the traditional right-left division, two opposing camps are emerging in Europe: on the one hand, the sovereigntists who wish to keep nation-states strong and central European power weak, and, on the other hand, those who would like Europe to impose more social (harmonisation), fiscal and societal standards.

For a federalist, it does not matter whether a federal Europe is anti-capitalist, economically liberal, progressive, conservative, climate-sceptic, ecological, immigrationist or protectionist. A federalist advocates a base of values, certainly, but minimal. Above all, they campaign for a system that guarantees representativeness, democracy, the rule of law, unity, the balance of power between the federal and the federated States, peace and fundamental rights. Everything else will be a matter of policy that the citizens will choose at each European level, federal state and local authorities.

What now?

In a way, then, the European Union has entered a new era, one in which its political components are increasingly acting as if the EU were a federation, but without having the full institutions or mechanisms for efficiency, democracy and sustainability.

This is where the calls for treaty reform, and even a move towards a constituent, are crucial. When European federalism is embodied, a significant part of the citizens will naturally turn to it as a new alternative. According to the old popular adage that makes nationalists so attractive today: ’those haven’t been tried yet’.

The Germans have elected a coalition that proposes a federal Europe. Mario Draghi, who spoke out in favour of European federalism as Italian Prime Minister, remains very popular in Italy. Emmanuel Macron has said he is in favour of treaty reform. The ball is now in the court of the European Commission and the heads of states to make proposals in this direction.

It is imperative to channel and frame this emerging political paradigm, to use this democratic frustration of citizens which leads them to populism and radicalisation of opinions. Before the constituency, a first accessible step can be the constitution of transnational lists for the 2024 European elections and the abolition of the right of veto in the European Council. Then the path towards a federalization of the EU, at least of a core group, will be facilitated.

The planets are therefore more than ever aligned. Now, we just have to push and convince people!

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