Advocates of closer union in Europe seem baffled by many voters’ resistance to such schemes. They look on the Front national in France, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom Independence Party with contempt, describing them as “populist” and fringe. Yet these parties’ skepticism of “ever-closer union” is quite sensible and far from new.
Former Socialist Party member of the European Parliament Olivier Duhamel argues in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde that the fading of the European idea had allowed nationalist movements to flourish. “As globalization led to a crisis of identity, ‘Europe’ could have appeared as a response but its political inability to press its case on the world stage has disqualified it as an ideal.”
Indeed, outside what UKIP leader Nigel Farage disparagingly calls the “liberal elite,” there never was a strong attachment to a “European” identity. Voters aren’t turning to Euroskeptic parties because they are disillusioned by a postnationalist philosophy. They never bought into the European idea. No European sense of belonging ever trumped their own. They accepted the European project because, on balance, it worked for them. Those countries inside the European community were at peace and often prospered. When they didn’t, most voters blamed either their national governments or global economic conditions. Now they see the European Union at fault. More and more believe “Europe” is doing more harm than good. And since they accepted it pragmatically in the first place, they believe they can do away with it (or parts of it) in the same way.
It are the proponents of deeper European integration who are waging an ideological struggle. They want to forge a European identity where there never was one. They want to unite a continent politically where for centuries it was divided between many states — which was likely one of the reasons Europe prospered more than the rest of the world did. The absence of a supranational authority led states to compete and experiment with varying degrees of economic and political freedom. The freest did best, forcing other states to follow suit or impoverish.
The Euroskeptics’ argument — that a more centralized Europe will be weaker, not stronger — has merit. Sadly, the federalists refuse to listen because they see the alternative, nationalism, as outdated if not dangerous.
They rationalize the rise of nationalist parties by claiming it is a natural response to hard times. Which may be true. People crave a sense of belonging less when all goes well. But such explanations than often turn to the 1930s and the Euroskeptics are compared to fascists — which only makes the federalists seem all the more dismissive of their critics.
Duhamel, at least, accepts that people want to feel part of a community, especially when the world around them is changing and not always for the better. The European federalists have invented an identity for themselves and they believe it is far more noble than anything their opponents offer. Either they don’t understand why not every European would want to share their sense or belonging — or they just don’t care whether the average European has a sense of belonging at all.