Voter discontent with the political establishment, immigration and economic woes have fueled nationalism that is threatening European unification.
By Clara Piacenza
Europe, not long ago a bloody battleground that pitted nation states against each other, is experiencing a surge of nationalism that poses a threat to the drive towards unification that has characterized the post-World War Two era.
In almost every country in Europe, nationalism is on the rise, fueled by growing voter discontent with traditional political parties, high unemployment, lackluster economic growth and immigration.
Britain’s vote on June 23 to leave the European Union was a stark reminder of the potential consequences of Euroscepticism. And it may not be the last.
Populist parties, antagonistic to the EU, have started to flex their muscles in a large number of countries.
The far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP) has held a prominent position since general elections in 2014, when it emerged as the second biggest party in Denmark. It considers mass migration incompatible with the country’s values.
Earlier this year, DPP foreign affairs spokesman Soren Espersen said Denmark’s culture “has been disrupted and changed over the years by migrants who don’t always seem to adapt to our rules and regulations.”
The DPP aims to reduce and eventually stop migrants from entering Denmark. “If we want to maintain our welfare state that we ourselves have built, then there is a limit,” Espersen told the BBC in Feburary. “We believe this limit has been reached now.”
Before British voters opted out of the EU, the DDP had said it would push for Denmark’s own referendum in the event the UK decided to leave.
Nationalists exploit fear of immigration.
In France, the Front National (FN) performed strongly in the first round of last December’s regional elections, winning 27 percent of the vote. Like the DPP, the FN favors strict curbs on immigration, especially among Muslims.
The FN is not new. It won its first seats in the French parliament in 1986, and since then it has grown in strength, albeit in fits and starts.
Its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came in second in the first round of the presidential election in 2002, and some opinion polls forecast that his daughter Marine could place first in the initial round of next year’s election. However, she would not be expected to win a second-round run-off vote if, as has happened in the past, her opponents on the Left and Right locked elbows to bar her.
But it’s an open question whether the mainstream parties will cooperate with each other this time.
In Poland, the conservative and xenophobic Law and Justice party now governs the country. In Germany, the right-wing populist and Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won seven percent of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament election.
Several of these parties have gained strength only recently. Law and Justice was founded in Poland in 2001, the Movement for a Better Hungary in 2003 and the Alternative for Germany in 2013.
Once considered marginal, these parties are now in the mainstream. Nationalist leaders such as Soren Espersen appear in the media as reasonable politicians.
British nationalists decry the EU as a “creeping dictatorship.”
Growing numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, along with recent terrorist attacks in Europe, have stoked apprehension which the nationalist parties have exploited.
Like the DPP in Denmark, the AfD in Germany has staked out anti-migration policies, offering an alternative to parties, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, that are more favorable towards immigration.
While immigration is a pre-eminent threat in the eyes of nationalists — it played a central role in the UK referendum — it is not the only one.
For many of the parties, the EU bureaucracy is an easy target, described by Nigel Farage, former leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, as an “emerging, creeping dictatorship.”
As William Hague, former UK foreign minister, said in 2012: “People feel that in too many ways the EU is something that is done to them, not something over which they have a say.”
Economic insecurity has fed rising nationalism. The 2008 financial crisis undercut employment in many EU member states, pushing unemployment in Greece and Spain to record levels, and increased economic inequality.
Far-right leader gets second chance in Austria.
Little wonder, then, that populist parties have capitalized on these circumstances to blame foreign trade, foreign workers and national elites for the prolonged malaise. Uneven economic recovery in Europe has not helped matters.
Far-right parties have not yet managed to govern the EU’s biggest member states, but it could be a matter of time. And the Brexit vote underscores the impact of nationalist thinking even when a populist party is not in power.
Consider Austria. Alexander Van der Bellen, backed by the Green Party, won a knife-edge election in May against his far-right opponent Norbert Hofer.
But the country’s constitutional court annulled the result, offering Hofer other chance in October to become the first far-right president in the EU.
Clara Piacenza is a French student studying European Studies at King’s College London. She is passionate about literature and history of art, and hopes to become a journalist specialized in these fields. She speaks French, German and English, and enjoys traveling.