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Nationalism in Europe: past and present

When talking about nationalism in Europe, we tend to think of a historical process that took place in the 19th century. But today, we observe a return of nationalism, which has fed the rise of populist ethno-nationalist parties. This movement is not only directed against the federalist tendencies of the European Union. It is also drawing on an idealized national culture to oppose any forms of contemporary changes in the world, such as globalisation and immigration.

Nationalism in Europe is associated with the birth of the nation state. In some countries, nationalism contributed to the formation of a state through the union of autonomous territories sharing a common culture, like in Germany or in Italy. It also fed movements of resistance against imperial rulers governing multicultural empires. This is the case for example of the Polish nationalism that arose in resistance against the Russian Empire, or the Greek and Bulgarian nationalisms that emerged in opposition to the Ottoman rule.

The 20th century has represented both an apogee and an apparent decline of nationalism. The world wars were a direct consequence of the violent side of nationalism. After World War 2, the will to stop the negative consequences of nationalism encouraged countries to initiate a process of regional integration. In the 1990’s many thinkers believed that the idea of nation had declined. The fall of the Berlin wall paved the way for the spread of globalist and cosmopolitan ideals, and of the belief in a future without borders.

Yet, in recent years, the return of nationalism has become a reality. All around Europe, numerous parties have been thriving on a nationalist discourse. Such parties, like the Front National in France, the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid, or the Finns in Finland obtained large scores in national elections and were able to influence their country’s politics. In countries like Hungary and Poland, the accession of such parties to power is viewed as a potential threat to the future of liberal democracy in Europe. Finally, in 2016, the vote of the British people to pull out of the European Union stemmed from a nationalist rhetoric calling for British citizens to “take back control”.

The geographer Marco Antonsich argues that this neo-nationalism is mainly caused by a resistance of the white middle class to the changes of the contemporary world:

The neo-nationalist does not look any more like a skinhead. In the case of Brexit, they more likely resemble the white, middle-class, in their sixties person sitting comfortably in front of the TV who simply says “enough is enough, we want our country back!” after having witnessed wars ravaging countries, refugees fleeing their homes, cities becoming increasingly multicultural, and gays getting legally married. As various studies have demonstrated, the supporter of the kind of populist, nativist, or defensive nationalism embodied by Farage, Trump, or Le Pen is a white man feeling uncomfortable with a changing world. Nostalgia and resentment for a world which no longer reflects what used to be are statistically more powerful explanations than economic predictors. The strongest support for this neo-nationalism does not come from low-waged, unskilled, manual workers (the so called “left-behind”), but from the petty bourgeoisie (e.g., self-employed plumbers, owners of family small businesses, shopkeepers). The populist voters are not those being directly affected by and living in contact with migrants, but those living in predominantly white communities who feel threatened in their privileged socio-economic status by economic decline or immigration

Share your view:

In your opinion, why has the nationalist rhetoric become so popular in the recent years in Europe? Do you think it is similar or different from 19th century nationalism?

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This article is from the free online course:

Cultures and Identities in Europe

European University Institute (EUI)

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