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Europe’s Nationalist Night Watch

PARIS – Populism is on the rise throughout Europe, as both economically depressed and prosperous countries become increasingly frustrated with their established political elites. But populists are unlikely to take control of any European government in the foreseeable future, even where the risk currently seems highest, in countries such as Hungary, Greece, and France. The majority of voters, driven by fear or common sense, remain unwilling to accept the prospect of becoming isolated from the rest of Europe.

But that does not mean that the European Union is safe from divisive forces. On the contrary, the return of nationalism, even (and especially) in the countries that constituted the EU’s founding core more than 60 years ago, represents a less spectacular but potentially more corrosive threat to European unity.

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This trend was starkly apparent last week during a visit to the Netherlands, one of the six original signatories of the Treaty of Rome. On my trip, I visited the Rijksmuseum, which was reopened in 2013, after a decade-long renovation. The previous building, aging and slightly outdated, was a tribute to the universal appeal of the country’s great painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer; it was a perfect celebration of light and family.

The new Rijksmuseum, despite being a striking and successful reincarnation, conveyed a very different message, serving more as a celebration of Dutch art and history. One room is devoted to the naval power of the Low Countries in the second half of the seventeenth century, when under the command of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, the newly independent Netherlands was able to defeat at sea the French, the Spanish, and even the British.

Another room, called “Waterloo,” highlights the defeat of Napoleon on what was then Dutch soil. It is centered on a huge painting, restored using donations from Dutch citizens, that pays tribute to the Duke of Wellington, as well as to the role of William of Orange, the future king of the Netherlands, in the battle.

Of course, I do not take issue with the Waterloo room out of some sense of French chauvinism. Napoleon was a despot, who waged useless and exceedingly bloody wars from Spain to Russia. His defeat was no tragedy, to say the least.

But in the old Rijksmuseum, no room was required to celebrate that defeat. The Dutch people’s collective psyche did not need a reminder of their country’s contribution to Napoleon’s downfall, which led to the restoration of their independence and, for a brief period, their control over present-day Belgium.

Yet in recent years – during the decade since their spectacular rejection of a treaty establishing an EU constitution – the Dutch have increasingly felt the need to celebrate their past glory in the most traditional manner. They, like other Europeans, are calling upon the past to compensate for the disillusion and frustration of the present and the uncertainty of the future.

Sixty years ago, a return to the past was precisely what European countries sought to avoid. They did not glorify historical battles, because they could see the ruins of those battles all around them – images that inspired them to build a different kind of future. By transcending national sovereignty, they hoped to protect themselves from a return to conflict and destruction.

To be sure, pride in one’s national identity is not, in itself, a bad thing. On the contrary, in a Europe composed of diverse nations, confidence in one’s own identity is a prerequisite for completing economic and political integration. To be a proud European, one must be a proud German, Spaniard, or Pole.

But what if that national pride takes hold at a time of deep, even existential, doubt about the value of Europe? While most Europeans understand that their countries cannot address the challenges facing them alone, they are losing faith that Europe is the answer. After all, beyond its enduring economic challenges, the EU has so far proved incapable of finding a common solution to the escalating refugee crisis that is coherent, firm, and in line with European values.

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The EU is not inherently incapable of addressing these challenges. The problem is that what the EU needs – more integration – is precisely what Europeans have become unwilling to support. It seems likely that only a major immediate threat, such as war with Russia, will drive them to take that step to give more powers to EU institutions in which they have lost faith.

The 70 years since the end of World War II represent only a small fraction of Europe’s history – far from long enough to transform the way people view themselves or their countries. The danger is that 70 years was just long enough for Europeans to begin to forget why they pursued integration in the first place. If that is the case, the kind of glorification of the past on display in the renovated Rijksmuseum is a very bad sign indeed.