Why European Nationalism Is Back

Nationalism reappears at a time when Europeans feel overwhelmed by immigration and terror.

Berlin Germany
Skyline of Berlin, Germany, December 31, 2005 (Max Braun)

The continent that gave us two world wars is rousing.

The litany of nationalist events is long: a near-miss Scottish secession, a looming Catalonian one, the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the relative success of France’s National Front and now, following the mass attacks on women in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve, a sudden public shift against migration in Germany. A continent that once embarked upon the transnational European Union aiming to end nationalism is now turned rightwards.

There is a tale to tell here. Let’s begin.

Why did we even think European nationalism had died out?

Mostly it’s because after the horrors of hyper-nationalist World War II, Europeans made many a pledge to “never again.”

While nineteenth-century Europeans had many reasons to feel proud (perhaps a bit too proud), the latter half of the twentieth century had too many mass graves for nationalism to get much traction.

But to ensure there was no need for European nationalism — as well as no desire — NATO and the Warsaw Pact kept the peace during the Cold War. NATO has done the job since 1991 and whole generations of Europeans have grown up with nary an interest in flying their flag too high.

That culminated in the European Union: a transnational voluntary federation meant to unify the continent’s economic systems and end the hardest edges of geopolitical competition. When fully realized, the EU would make war impossible, national competition irrelevant, and nationalism kitsch.

But alas, geopolitical stressors have come along and rattled that worldview

European nationalism remains mostly on its way out: NATO and the EU will, on a long enough timeline, see to that. But the resurgence of nationalist feeling across the continent is in response to the continent’s heightened sense of insecurity. There’s good reason for feeling that way; Europe is, after all, the least secure it’s been since the 1980s.

This isn’t to say that Europe is suddenly about to fall apart: rather, it’s the shock that’s come along with the end of Europe’s post-Cold War glow. From an “anything is possible” idealism comes now a crashing realism and along with it a questioning of all the projects that have made Europeans suddenly feel the need to lock their political doors at night.

First and foremost, the refugee crisis has hardly reassured Europeans

During the 1990s and 2000s, asylum seekers were considered nuisances at worse: oddities among Europe’s well-homogenized nation states, but not threats and not beyond the capabilities of the continent’s states.

The sudden surge of refugees, propelled to postwar record heights by Syria’s civil war, has come as a shock. The attacks in Cologne are merely a symptom of the problem: refugees are coming in too vast of numbers for Europe’s nation states to manage. Such huge numbers cannot all be tagged and monitored; many are coming from anarchy and bringing their trauma with them. Others are taking advantage of their hosts, mistaking generosity for weakness.

Worse, European nations are very bad at assimilating new arrivals. For years, Europe has been content to pretend that these communities could live at the social and political margins of their societies and be fine with that. This was, after all, the practical effect of multiculturalism: societies living near one another with vastly different cultural rules. While postwar elites very much wanted to believe that Europe could afford such a situation (trying to forget the ghosts of their world wars and slave-ridden empires), the reality was that no matter what European nations did, if they did not assimilate said migrants they would invariably ghettoize and produce a backlash.

But assimilation always requires compromise. Americans, after all, once despised the Irish: now St Patrick’s Day is a widely celebrated holiday. Well-established European nations have struggled to find a place for newcomers.

Naturally, this complex problem is inspiring simple answers. Nationalists offer a solution: a return to a not-so-long-ago, marginalizing or expelling the new arrivals who aren’t playing by the national rules. In the wake of Cologne, it’s likely European generosity will have reached its limit.

Meanwhile, cultural insecurity has been supplemented by murderous terrorism

This is a force than even NATO cannot fully prevent. Soviet armies could be held at the Iron Curtain under threat of nuclear war, but Islamist terror cells, whether homegrown or sent overseas, play by no such rules. These cells are operating under a well-known terror strategy, seeking to divide and propel recruits to their ranks.

Nationalism, meanwhile, offers a simple solution: close the political gates to the outsiders who might provide the fertile ground for extremism. Never mind that European nationalism has produced such extremists as experienced in the world wars or the killing fields of the Balkans; the growing belief that a purer Europe will somehow be more immune to terrorism is gaining traction.

Because Europeans, especially Western and Central Europeans, often look quite different from the attackers coming out of North Africa and the Middle East, nationalism provides a blatant answer to terror tinged with unhealthy doses of racism. While shadows of the Third Reich still loom, many will argue that Hitler’s Jewish victims did not go about setting off bombs and cutting off heads before being sent to the death camps. This is irrelevant: migrants or not, so long as Europe supports America’s military missions in the Muslim world, it will remain a target for dedicated terrorists. (And while the simple answer might be to fall back from the Middle East, an upcoming article will detail why that’s not a great idea.)

Finally, the failure of the EU to provide prosperity for all has brought borders back into focus

The idealists of 1990s Europe believed the euro would even out economic differences, allowing poorer countries to learn from richer ones and for wealth to be spread more evenly. Instead, poor countries borrowed heavily from rich ones, who invariably came calling for what was owed. Europe has faced a tough recovery from the Great Recession: generous welfare states and greying populations, in addition to the liabilities that go with having old cities where modern infrastructure is expensive to build, has slowed its growth.

Such economic insecurity is easy enough to blame on the EU; surely, the euro does deserve some blame and Germany has treated the union as a gigantic easy export market. But EU or not, Europeans were not about to avoid the Great Recession and they would not be in boom times without it today either.

Nationalists have capitalized on a rosy, postwar past, but forget how much Europe has changed demographically and how much Europe owed to the legacy of empire for its easy prosperity for many decades. Few advocate recolonizing anywhere (that’d be more expensive that it’s worth anyway). But gropingly, nationalist feeling is stirred by a belief that Europe was better off in its imperial past.

Thankfully, for the feeling to get much worse, Europe must be put into much more serious crisis

This nationalist revival won’t go to Third Reich levels so long as NATO remains potent and the EU stays intact. Not even Russia’s military adventures in Ukraine can stir Europeans to militarize to World War II levels; the knowledge that to invade NATO’s Europe is to cause nuclear war is still common. That will keep nationalism to a simmer rather than a boil.

Still, for those refugees who must be resettled somewhere, the backlash will get worse: it may come that few will be allowed to stay. Europe may refocus on restoring order to the Middle East to give said refugees somewhere to go; it’ll have to convince the next American president that such a job is worth the effort.

While it may be ugly, it is not the resurrection of horrors long past; that will require much deeper trauma. Comfort can be found there.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, January 13, 2016.