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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.

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