Much of the commentary on the resurgence of nationalism in Europe tends to lump the various parties that represent it together in the “far-right” category. This is unhelpful as not all nationalist movements are right-wing, nor do they all mark a throwback to the destructive nationalism of the last century.
In an opinion article for Al Jazeera America, Paul Hockenos draws a more useful distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism. The former binds people together by common values and political ideas. America is the best example but the nationalism of the British, Canadians, Dutch, French and Scandinavians can be described as “civic” as well.
“The civic nationalist may be proud of his nation,” writes Hockenos, “but not at the expense of other nations that have similar legal rights.”
Ethnic nationalism, by contrast, sees people as bound by blood, territory and destiny. “In the world of ethnic nations, one nation is always superior and destined to rule over territory as well as other peoples.” Prewar Germany and Japan probably exemplified this kind of nationalism. Today’s Russia stands out as another example.
Which is not to say ethnic nationalism necessarily breeds conflict. Still, civic nationalism is preferable. It is more peaceful and tends to go hand in hand with liberal values.
In a sense, civic nationalism is more demanding. It puts the onus on the individual to prove himself a member of the nation by embracing certain values. (When immigrants don’t, it weakens the nation, as can be seen across Western Europe.) Civic nationalism gives members of the community a sense of belonging without necessarily challenging their individuality. Civic nationalism is open and outward looking. Ethnic nationalism is closed. The ethnicity is presumed to exist before and irrespective of the nation.
How does this fit with modern nationalist movements?
Peter Bloom argues at The Conversation that is the “pressure to globalize” that has revived nationalism in Europe.
Whereas Hockenos seems to regard Europe’s nationalist resurgence as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon, even worrying that they “cloak their jingoist, racist agendas in the jargon of self-determination,” Bloom recognizes that nationalism actually spans the entire political spectrum. Nationalist movements in Catalonia and Scotland, for example, are more leftist and far from Euroskeptic. What they nevertheless share with other nationalists, he believes, is “an emphasis on preserving national prosperity against internal and external enemies”
The supposedly right-wing Front national in France is actually protectionist while Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party is more libertarian. Yet they appeal to similar voters and both see themselves as defending national identifies from — as Bloom puts it — “the threat of foreign influence, metropolitan political correctness and in particular immigrants.”
Where the movements differ is how they define national identity.
The Catalan and Scottish independence movements have little of the anti-immigrant sentiment of the Front national and UKIP but can be considered closer to ethnic than civic nationalism. They argue for the existence of historical Catalan and Scottish nations whose values aren’t so different from the rest of Spain or the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Front national and UKIP, by contrast, are either opposed to or critical of European integration and immigration because they believe those forces weaken French and British identity. They make clear they don’t mistrust other nations nor are they principally opposed to immigration; what they fear is a dilution of national values. They worry that in a world of “one Europe,” globalization and open borders, their nations will be forced to adopt policies they don’t want and their people will be forced to adopt a cosmopolitan, multicultural sense of identity they don’t share.
Movements such as the Front national and UKIP raise the question of what it means to be French or British. They answer that question by pointing to a combination of individual rights and liberties and particular accomplishments such as secularism and parliamentary democracy that they believe are unique to their nation. Hence also such disparities as the Front national defending “traditional” marriage in France while its Freedom Party ally in the Netherlands sees the protection of gay rights as an inextricable part of Dutch identity. This difference of opinion doesn’t bother either party very much. They do not, after all, believe values are universal. (Although you wouldn’t want to accuse them of cultural relativism!)
Certainly, quite a few of Europe’s nationalist parties demonstrate that civic nationalism doesn’t have to be civil. But as civic nationalist movements, they don’t have to be the threat to European values their opponents often make them out to be. Far more sinister are the ethnic nationalist movements, like Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. Theirs is not a nationalism of ideas but a nationalism of blood — and theirs is the nationalism that must surely be stopped.