What to Make of Europe’s Nationalist Resurgence

Not all nationalists are right-wing, nor do they all mark a throwback to the destructive nationalism of the past.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's Front national, waves at supporters in Paris, May 1, 2012 (Blandine Le Cain)

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.


  1. the issue is way more complicated, but I think this article does not get it. The outward concept of “Nationalism” is used to gain support for certain conservative and discriminating homespun values, and it always has deeper, more sinister undercurrents and agendas. For one thing, it is always a construct of “We” against “the Other”. the demonized, mysterious threat (such as an Arab assorted candy added to the 500 local assorted candys in the local candy shop, = The Outward, Misty Threat to project all your fear of not being able to buy a second widescreen at) against the monologous mass of self-righteousness, which has to be uniform to work. Then there is always dumb-downed, prejudizing, witch-burning ignorant populism at use to spread the “Values” of the specific self-rigtheous, scape-goating communion/nation. So what we have going on in Europe, instead of constructive complex political discussion and solutions/solidarity, is basically scape-goating
    ignorant populist fears based upon the antithesis of solidarity and anything truly important.

  2. and wanting to keep certain values based upon what they really is about, like wanting to keep democracy and solidarity tax and Yule, is always an ongoing democratic discussion and not permanently Nation-invented concepts. Culture is important to cherish but it is not the same thing as different political aspects of human rights and justice, which is globally humanitarian, not microcultural, concepts. Culture is something that we nurture to keep, but culture is everywhere, there is micro and subculture, and becomes what is is regarding to different people but sharing larger concepts and ideas. A culture becomes what you, they, we makes of it. It is important to cherish and upheld and invent what you like to have in your culture, but it is not a static brick that just :is::. we make it and has to be aware of what we want it to be

  3. What contemporary Liberals call (shudder) “nationalism,” is what used to be called patriotism.

    Of course, the other fellow’s patriotism is no good if the objective is to conquer him. It is much easier to kill someone who is already suicidal.

    Today, it is an ideology rather than an empire (unless you count Brussels or Islam) which is bent on conquest. The tenets of this ideology are: (a) There
    is no natural law. That nature can suggest to us how we should live is a myth, because we all have the right–nay, the obligation–to consider whatever
    we do to be “natural.” (b) There are no moral absolutes. What is “wrong for you” might just as well be “right for me.” I have no limitations save not to hurt anyone else. If I do hurt someone else, I am justified as long as I didn’t intend to. If I did intend to, I am entitled to establish the standard, even after the fact,
    by which the fellow had it coming. (c) It is a moral absolute that it is wrong to apply these same standards in dealing with Me. (d) Whatever is culturally suicidal or societally masochistic is “constructive change”: and is Good. Whatever is socially cohesive, particularly if it produces a peaceful mind and a healthy optimism, is Bad. (e) These various tenets would be cognitively dissonant, if such a thing as cognitive dissonance existed. However, it does not, because
    two diametrically opposed things are able to coexist cordially at the same time and in the same place, as long as they serve My purposes. (f) There is no
    god but Me.

    This philosophy has ruled our institutions for fifty years. It has destabilized the world, driven prosperous nations into poverty and dependence and has
    encouraged a worldwide atmosphere of stress and uncertainty.

    The populations of formerly relatively happy nations are sick of it. They see no reason why they should despise themselves and their societies, or why they should value chaos over stability just because agenda-driven people are now calling them, “progress” and “right-wing moribundity.”

    So, they are rejecting what is corrupting them and opting to return to health. Ergo, “Nationalism.”

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