LONDON – The defeat of ultranationalist parties in the Netherlands and in France earlier this year gave European leaders the sense that fear of a far-right surge had, after all, been misplaced. As it turns out, it was the relief that was misplaced.
Europe remains a battleground between nationalist forces, conventional right or left governments and parties that cleave to broadly liberal positions. It is not alone. Across the world, the same impulses to define a state according to ethnic or historic criteria, or to put existing states “first,” grow in diverse forms.
Two referendums illuminate the trend. One, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq on Sept. 25, produced an almost 93 percent vote in favor of Kurdish independence, followed by an immediate demand from the Iraqi government to invalidate the vote and a threat to use the army to suppress any move toward independence. On Sunday the citizens of Catalonia voted to secede from Spain, and the president of the autonomous region said it would declare independence within days.
The tone in the democratic world is often set by the United States — no longer the champion of greater openness and cooperation, but now the promoter of “America First.” Work began last week on prototypes for Donald Trump’s “beautiful” wall between Mexico and the U.S.; the president extended his travel ban to the citizens of three more states (Chad, North Korea and Venezuela) while dropping one, Somalia, from the list — this to align immigration “with his America First foreign policy vision.”
Europe, though, is the hub of nationalist struggles. In large part, this is because the nationalist politicians pit themselves against the continent’s large ambition to create a European Union which, in its enthusiasts’ view, should become a powerful, federal state through progressive integration — a perspective powerfully supported by the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in his State of the Union address last month.
Immigration has been and remains the spur for the nationalists. Its growing unpopularity fills out their sails and brings them votes from all over the political compass, including a significant proportion from working class voters accustomed to voting left, even far left.
In Germany’s general election late last month, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) soared to become the third-largest party in the Bundestag behind the governing CDU/CSU center-right coalition and the center-left SPD, largely on strong opposition to immigration. One of the AfD leaders, Alexander Gauland, called Chancellor Angela Merkel’s opening of the borders to some 1 million migrants “a gift” to his party, which it gratefully accepted and used more successfully than even the party thought possible. Some commentators believe the shock to the German system — built for decades on a moderate consensus opposed to right-wing extremism of any kind — will “condemn Europe to permanent crisis.”
In Sweden, which has taken proportionately more migrants than any other European country over the past two years, crime, including shootings and riotous behavior, seems to have increased. The extent of that has been distorted by the right, but a careful analysis in the National Review concludes that Sweden has “a growing problem with crime that is linked to immigration.”
The phenomenon was enough for the migration minister from neighboring Norway, Sylvi Listhaug — a member of the nationalist Progress Party, part of the governing coalition — to make a media-trailed visit to a Swedish “no-go area,” claiming during the visit that there are “conditions of lawlessness and criminals in control” in places with “a large quantity of people with immigrant backgrounds.” The subtext was that this would not be permitted to happen in Norway. Her Swedish counterpart canceled a scheduled meeting with her, saying her statement was “complete nonsense.”
In Central Europe, the Visegrad Group of states — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — have rejected requests from fellow members of the European Union to take in a quota of migrants. Last week in Prague, I asked the leader of the ANO party, Andrej Babis, strongly favored to be prime minister after the October general election, what his policy toward the EU would be. He answered that he would demand a return of powers from Brussels to the national level, since the EU had no business dictating national policy — a popular view in the country. He has already made clear that he is wholly opposed to migrants being received in Europe.
In her Sept. 22 speech on Brexit in Florence, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said that the British had “never felt entirely comfortable” in the EU. It’s probably a fair summation of a national mood; most British have always seen the EU as a transactional, rather than political, union. When a sizable part of the population came to believe that the EU is both incomprehensible and overbearing, Brexit resulted.
Across the English Channel, Emmanuel Macron has put himself at the head of a revived and fiercely proactive campaign to rouse the EU to continue its forward march. In a Sept. 26 speech, the French president proclaimed that “the only path that assures our future is the rebuilding of a Europe that is sovereign, united and democratic.” Integration — in defense, security and within the eurozone, had to be more profound, he said.
It was the vision in which one will not compromise with the nationalist forces — forces that will weaken Merkel, his strongest ally, as she tries to balance Germany’s contending forces rather than embrace his euro-optimism.
Brexit has had the headlines, and attracted the most derision from the EU enthusiasts. But nationalism — the wish to create, or to strengthen, the nation-state against real or mythic enemies — remains a dominant current in the politics of the democratic countries. Battles have been won on both sides. The war goes on.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.