Monday, November 24, 2014

Europe’s Nationalists on the March

BERLIN – Europe is made up of its nations, and has been for hundreds of years. That is what makes the continent’s unification such a difficult political task, even today. But nationalism is not Europe’s principle of construction; on the contrary, it has been, and remains, Europe’s principle of deconstruction. That is the main lesson to be drawn from the dramatic gains made by anti-European populist parties in last weekend’s European Parliament election.

It is a lesson that all Europeans should have learned by now. Europe’s twentieth-century wars, after all, were fought under the banner of nationalism – and almost completely destroyed the continent. In his farewell address to the European Parliament, François Mitterrand distilled a lifetime of political experience into a single sentence: “Nationalism means war.”

This summer, Europe will commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, which plunged Europe into the abyss of modern nationalist violence. Europe will also mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy, which would decide World War II in favor of democracy in Western Europe (and later, after the end of the Cold War, in all of Europe).

Recent European history abounds with such commemorations and anniversaries, all closely connected with nationalism. And yet many Europeans’ hopes for the future once again seem to find expression in it, whereas a unified Europe, the guarantor of peace among Europe’s peoples since 1945, is viewed as a burden and a threat. That is the true significance of the European Parliament election results.

But numbers and percentages alone do not express the scale of the defeat suffered by the EU. As much as democratic elections define majorities and minorities – and thus the distribution of power for a period of time – they do not always guarantee a correct assessment of the political situation. Elections provide a snapshot – a frozen moment; to understand long-term trends, we need to examine the change in various parties’ share of the vote from one election to the next.

If the outcome of the European Parliament election were to be judged exclusively by the fact that an overwhelming majority of Europe’s citizens cast their votes for pro-EU parties, the most fundamental point – the dramatic increase in support for Euroskeptic nationalist parties in states like France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, Greece, and Hungary – would be missed. If this trend continues, it will become an existential threat to the EU, as it will block further integration, which is urgently needed, and destroy the European idea from within.

France, in particular, gives cause for great concern, because its National Front has established itself as the country’s third political force. “Conquer France, destroy Europe!” has become the Front’s next electoral goal. Without France, little or nothing happens in the EU; together with Germany, it is indispensable to the EU’s future. And no one should doubt that the Front and its voters mean what they say.

At the heart of Europe’s political crisis is the eurozone’s economic and financial malaise, which neither national governments nor EU institutions seem able to address. Rather than strengthening pan-European solidarity, economic distress has led to a massive distribution conflict. What once was a relationship among equals has given way to a face-off between debtors and creditors.

The mutual distrust that characterizes this conflict may irreparably harm the soul of the Union and the entire European project. Northern Europe is plagued by fears of expropriation; the south is in the grip of a seemingly unending economic crisis and unprecedentedly high unemployment, for which its citizens hold the north – particularly Germany – responsible. The debt crisis in the south, together with the social consequences of harsh austerity measures, is seen simply as the abandonment of the solidarity principle by the rich north.

In this climate of diminishing solidarity, old-style nationalism was practically handed its victories on a silver platter. Indeed, wherever the EU could be blamed for the collapse of middle-class wellbeing, national chauvinism and xenophobia were winning electoral strategies.

Given France’s current weakness and the dramatic election result there, as well as the United Kingdom’s bizarre path toward an EU exit, Germany’s leadership role will continue to increase, which is good for neither Germany nor the EU. Germany never aspired to such a role; the country’s economic strength and institutional stability has made accepting it unavoidable. Nonetheless, Germany’s reluctance to lead remains a big problem.

All Europeans have it in their political genes to object instinctively – and also rationally – to any form of hegemony. This also applies to Germany. But to hold the German hegemon responsible for austerity policies in the south is only partly justified; the German government did not force the affected countries to run up high levels of public debt.

What Germany can be held responsible for is its leaders’ insistence on simultaneous debt reduction and structural reforms and their objection to almost any growth-oriented policies within the eurozone. Moreover, none of Germany’s political camps is willing to acknowledge the monetary union’s “German problem” (namely the country’s relative strength, which it has not used for the good of the European project as a whole).

The burning question now is how much Germany will do for France to save Europe. The pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi will certainly increase, and it will not just come from Paris, but also from Rome, Athens, and other capitals.

For Germany, the alternative to changing course now is to wait until Europe’s debtor countries elect governments that call into question their obligation to pay. In Greece, the writing is already on the wall. For Europe, this would be a disaster; for Germany, it would be simply foolish.

Read more from "The Great War Revisited"

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (8)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. CommentedCelt Darnell

      Like too many Eurofantics, Fischer doesn't understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. He also doesn't understand why people prefer national sovereignty to imperialism.

      That is why his cause is doomed.

    2. CommentedTravis Zly

      Zsolt Hermann is closest to the truth. Indeed, the European Union is primarily a banking construct, designed to facilitate the unimpeded movement of capital around Europe. Democracy is only an afterthought.

      The TARGET2 automated payment system allows instantaneous capital transfers between any European central banks that are part of the Eurosystem.

      TARGET-2-SECURITIES is almost ready to go online. This will allow the instantaneous settlement of stock and bond and derivatives trades within the Eurosystem, replacing national stock exchanges.

      This is the undeclared reason why the UK wants out of the EU: Frankfurt seeks to take over the mantle of London. (Nigel Farage is a Market Trader by profession).

      The countries on the Eurozone periphery are exactly equivalent to the emerging economies that are part of the Dollar zone. It suited America to ease its monetary policy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Cheap Dollars flowed en masse into emerging market stocks.

      As soon as tighter monetary policy kicked in (tapering), there was chaos as trillions of dollars of American capital returned home to take advantage of increases in US Treasury 10- and 30-year Bond yields. The Indian economy was wiped out in weeks, we will recall, as its Central Bank tried to defend the Rupee.

      In the same way, at the first signs of instability in the Eurozone in 2010, trillions of Euros invested in Eurozone emerging economies, were shifted to Northern Europe, leading to a fire-sale of assets in the South, particularly Government bonds.

      The situation can only get worse with a closer banking union.

    3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I don't think it is "nationalists on the march".
      As the article also suggests nationalism, not only in Europe but everywhere else (it is enough to look at Russia, US, Far East, even South America for current examples) is a constant feeling, attitude.
      And in itself it is neither good or evil, we all prefer ourselves and what is closest to us, in gradually growing circles, people naturally connect to those similar and close to them.

      So it is not that nationalism is on the rise, but a more systematic, inclusive framework that was supposed to balance individualism, nationalism is failing.

      The main problem is we tend to think in absolutes, in black and white.
      We think a global, interconnected system, a federal Europe has to mean the end of nations, cultures, individual or national freedom.

      And this is the notion clever politicians exploit because the European experiment so far failed to prove otherwise.
      It failed to provide such a framework where on one hand people, nations can preserve their own character, culture, and decision making on the micro-management level, but at the same time there is a supra-national macro-managing framework that can balance and organize the nations in a way that all can contribute to the whole with their best abilities and receive everything they need to function optimally.

      So far the "Union" and common currency was solely aimed at markets, profit and lately financial institutions, completely ignoring the actual public.
      It is understandable that this ignored, neglected public, or at least the part still goes voting, runs into the arms of the politicians promising them national greatness, even what they promise is impossible to fulfill in a globally interconnected and inter-dependent system that is the result of evolution and not something man-made we could turn back from.

      The European project and inter-relationships in between individuals and nations has to be completely re-evaluated in light of this new evolutionary state, working out how the different, colorful pieces of the puzzle can be fitted into a single, mutually complementing picture, more precisely multidimensional network.

      Individualism, nationalism will never disappear, we cannot suppress our natural tendencies, but with the right framework, environment we can re-route, channel those tendencies into a positive direction.

    4. CommentedJohann Savalle

      People - most people - do not have the time nor the background require to understand or analyse policies and best practices. People want to know their leadership is to care about them with their best interest in mind - and heart.
      Campaigns led by nationalists and other extremes do not bright by their intellectual and brilliant reasoning, but more by the emotional call they have to their followers.
      They have expressed better than the current leadership their intention to care and to bring a brighter future to the one who would be voting for them.
      Since elections are national (and not transnational - which by the way would be to my opinion a safer way to avoid the rise of nationalism), Nationalists will always be able to draw advantage of anything wrong ongoing in their own country and put the responsibility on Europe, the gays, the black, the jews... in short the usual suspects.
      First and foremost, what matter now, is for the current leadership to actually express care and involvement in European citizens (and not just in European affairs). People do not feel European MPs care about them, or that any of the european institution is actually paying attention to them as people who suffer, as people who struggle - and while no one is expected to have magical solutions, at least to really care and communicate this care would be more than appreciated. Such a task in itself is going to be a challenge, as cynism and lack of trust have grown, and it is not in the culture of european institutions to have a human face. To change this will require some real effort if they want to regain some trust. Else, no matter what will be the policies, people will be driven toward a complete hatred of european institutions and their leaders, and nothing will be really left to save the situation.

    5. CommentedTomas Kurian

      ...But to hold the German hegemon responsible for austerity policies in the south is only partly justified; the German government did not force the affected countries to run up high levels of public debt.

      It is justified as everybody has to run deficits unless it is persuing neocolonialistc predatory policy of extensive exports as Germany does, exporting its unemployment to other countries.

      Genom of capitalism - Additional resources – policy options and consequences

      It is Germany that is running 19. century economical model, refusing to move to more sustainable 20. century model of deficit financing.

      Genom of capitalism - Evolution of monetary systems

    6. CommentedNichol Brummer

      The EU would have profited from a relaxation of the Maastricht rules, not just for the 'south', but also for the 'north' and even Germany itself. If all Euro countries would be allowed to have a deficit of a bit more, lets say 6%, in stead of 3, and if they would all actually increase their deficit to that value, then this would provide a nice stimulus to the economy of the whole EU. If the banks are all still scared to create more money through lending, then the governments should be able to take up the slack for some time. The EU should be able to decide on a step of this kind, and I'm sure the ECB and Draghi would not mind getting some fiscal support to avoid low inflation, or even deflation.

      Germany has been the one to push for fundamentalism when it comes to interpreting the rules of the Euro. My own country, the Netherlands, has supported this foolishness. The fear that the 'north' will need to increase their taxes to pay for such a deficit is nonsensical. We always have the power of our central bank to back up any sovereign debt. Unless we want to decide that we don't.

    7. Commentedhari naidu

      I suspect if you don’t have historical perspective on EU/EEC integration developments, it’d be difficult to understand and appreciate the fundamentals of anti-EU votes in France and UK. Nationalism may be one factor but not the decisive constraint to *ever closer union*.

      France: Essentially it’s all about centrist structure of French politics. As long as Paris dictates ALL regional politics, it’s inevitable that centrist France will not survive globalization. In other words, it’s high time to decentralize France and its Amin Districts and invoke principle of subsidiarity and legally allow regional/domestic powers to originate policy and make final decisions. This is not going to happen without a real serious fight – Hollande is not the President to lead such a reformed French agenda.

      Recall, under Mitterrand, he was always Secretary of the Socialist Party, and never given a ministry to run. Why?

      UK: Limey’s never supported Maastricht Treaty & Euro currency introduction; they preferred their Sterling Pound and actually amused themselves at concept of Single Market and Euro! That’s 1980s! Now they want a FTA only – have your cake and eat it! - and no convergence on macro policy including Schengen and immigration. The decline and fall of Britain started long ago; UKIP may have found the ultimate anti-EU strategy to make a decisive move in that direction. And Scotland is going its own way too….

        CommentedAlasdair MacLean

        The old Limeys rather than on the decline are expected to have the largest economy in Europe in just a few years. They will even overtake the Germans currently the economic powerhouse of Europe.
        One of the reasons this is so is that they kept the pound. If the Germans and the French had kept their own currencies then they wouldn't be in the state they are in today.