Nationalism and political identities in contemporary Europe

Colin Crouch

_11. 02. 2021


Track back to 1990, and most observers were predicting that, as liberal democracy arrived in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, so patterns of political parties similar to those in the west would arrive in the countries emerging from state socialism. Instead, something quite different happened. Nearly all parts of Europe, also the United States and some other countries with established liberal democracy, entered a period of weak political parties and the rise of new movements based mainly on hostility to foreigners of various kinds. Similar developments started to take place in central Europe. There may be convergence between east and west, but it is not what had been expected.

Things had begun to change in the west during the 1980s, when a number of new xenophobic parties were founded – or existing conservative parties started to change and adopt more nationalistic positions. By the early years of the new century some of these had begun to make clear breakthroughs into the political mainstream. If we define this point as when a party achieves the support of more than 10% of the total electorate, then such parties became prominent in some countries between 2000 and 2010: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland; in others some time before 2020: Finland, Germany, Italy, Sweden. In several cases these parties had periods as parts of governing coalitions. The Front National had done well in French presidential elections since 2002, but did not enjoy so much success in those for parliament. The British electoral system punishes small parties, but even there the anti-European, anti-immigrant party UKIP attracted the support of 8% of the electorate in 2015, and the well established Conservative Party started to turn itself into a nationalistic, anti-European one.

It is difficult to assess the situation in most of central Europe outside Hungary and Poland, as parties of all kinds have become very volatile, in terms of both their popular support and their programmes. However, the adoption of xenophobic themes can be seen in several cases. Outside Europe, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US in 2016 can be added to the list. Although he stood for an established party, it was clear that he and his supporters had ‘captured’ that party from its usual leaders, and he certainly used themes of hostility to both foreign nations and immigrants and ethnic minorities as part of his platform.

As with all complex social changes, explanations exist at two levels: underlying causes; and sudden processes that produce rapid and widespread change. Here we shall examine the former, and then go on to the latter.

In the established democracies of the west the ties that had once bound the majority of voters to particular party identities had been weakening for decades. These identities had been forged in earlier, sometimes violent, struggles of the late 19th and early 20th century against anti-democratic regimes, over inclusion in and exclusion from political citizenship based on social class and, often, religion. The right to vote was usually determined by criteria of property ownership that excluded the great majority of working people. People in minority religions or caught up in conflicts between Christianity and secularism also often found that their religious identity led to them suffering various kinds of exclusion. People on the wrong side of these various barriers found parties and movements willing to lead them in demands for inclusion. Those on the right side of barriers found parties wanting to protect their privileges against the excluded. As a result, many people found that their social identity also gave them a deeply felt political identity. Whether this could be freely expressed depended on whether the country concerned had more or less free elections, but by the end of World War II this was the case in those parts of Europe not dominated by either fascist or communist dictatorships. Identities forged in bitter struggles over inclusion became, paradoxically, the basis of more peaceful forms of electoral conflict and political stability.

But identities forged in past conflicts weakened over time as their origins became mere memories. This became especially true as the two forces that had produced these identities also weakened: the class structure of industrial and agricultural society, and the Christian religion. Deindustrialization and the growth of the services economy meant that fewer people worked in the industries that had produced the class structure of capitalist society. In Europe, though not the US, religion ceased to be a major force in society. By the end of the 20th century it had become difficult for large numbers of voters to see any particular party as representing them. The old party systems remained in place, but smaller proportions of electorates vote for them, and many parties themselves have no strong sense of what they are about.

In central Europe the journey has been quite different, but the point of arrival is similar. State socialism did not permit struggles over rival social identities. By the 1980s widespread movements of general opposition to the dictatorship had developed, and in the initial post-1990 elections parties based on these seemed about to dominate newly established political systems. But these movements had been held together by opposition to the Soviet regime; once that had fallen their own internal divisions became evident. They have fallen back into a wider scene of parties with only shallow social roots, based on wealthy individuals or on very narrow appeals, few of which attract strong and lasting loyalties among voters.

Differences between east and west remain, as the old parties in the latter still retain some hold, but right across Europe there is today a landscape of weak parties, with uncertain identities of their own, attracting strong support among only a declining proportion of the electorate.
If the strength and durability of political parties depends on their representing identities that ordinary voters can feel as important to them, and if such identities are today in short supply, there is one that survives and increasingly stands alone and thereby becomes prominent: nation. It is an identity that most people can feel, and it can be fundamental to our sense of who we are. It defines the borders of the geographical space in which we are entitled to feel at home, not an outsider. It often defines the language we speak, the mass media that we use, and the sports teams we support. It is a deep social identity, but it also has very immediate political significance, since national territories define the most important levels of government.

The political meaning of nationalism changes with time and circumstance. In late 19th century Europe it meant struggles for liberation of people subordinated to external empires, mainly that of Austro-Hungary. In the mid-20th century it mainly referred to more global struggles against the domination of the British, French, Dutch and some other colonial empires. As battles for freedom and self-government these were democratic, popular movements against despotic ruling elites, and nationalism and democracy ran together. However, once self-government has been achieved, nationalist movements face a dilemma. Do they continue the fight for democracy within the nation, or does a domestic elite simply walk into the spaces vacated by the imperial rulers? Of the liberations from Austro-Hungary, only that in the then Czechoslovakia succeeded in sustaining democratic government until it was crushed by another external force, Nazi Germany. Elsewhere nationalism changed from being a means to attack foreign elites to a means to defend local ones.

Post-liberation nationalism is a dangerous tool. By continuing to focus on foreign enemies, domestic elites are able to draw attention away from their own abuses of power and exploitation of the people. Worse, once independence has been fully achieved, national fervour can be sustained only by identifying new foreign foes. This might involve picking fights with other countries, or at least creating atmospheres of bad relations with them. This is a dangerous tactic, as it leads at least to restrictions in trade but possibly also to war. Alternatively, or additionally, local ethnic minorities and groups of immigrants can be picked on and defined as hostile to the integrity of the nation. This can lead to persecution and harassment of these groups.

Following this experience of 20th century nationalism, most post-war western political leaders became very cautious how they used it. From time to time they did find it convenient to stir up national sentiment in order to achieve unity around their projects. Also, ambitious outsiders would use appeals to national solidarity against foreigners and immigrants in order to generate support for new movements. Most leaders of established parties across the spectrum held these developments at the margins. In the east the rulers of the Soviet Union used traditional appeals to the solidarity of the Russian people to consolidate their rule. This meant that they did not permit politicized nationalism to develop within the countries of the Warsaw Pact, though they were keen to develop purely cultural, folkloric expressions of national identity in many of the countries over which they effectively ruled. But now, in the early 21st century, the boundaries are down. Xenophobic parties are making substantial progress, and many established politicians feel it either opportune or necessary to echo their themes.

Why now?
This brings us to the question, why now? A major event at the start of this century were the Islamic terrorist attacks in the US in November 2001. This came at a time when immigration from Islamic countries was beginning to grow. The wars that the US and her allies unleashed against Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent destabilization of Syria and other parts of the region, then generated large waves of refugees, a small proportion of whom came to Europe and the US. Fear of Muslim people became widespread, even in countries like Hungary and Poland to which hardly any refugees came. Xenophobic parties could take this fear and turn it into a generalized hostility to foreign minorities of all kinds. In no case was this stronger than in the UK, where hostility to European immigrants led a majority of the population to provoke the country’s exit from the European Union.
But these movements are not just xenophobic. They usually also respond to a wider range of discontents. They often link a revival of nationalism to a reassertion of socially conservative values, hostile to such recent developments as the rise of the role of women and more liberal attitudes to homosexuality. A powerful sense of nostalgia links these themes, which can also extend to a desire to return to the declining occupational world of industrial society. This last in turn strengthens a further form of xenophobia, at least in the west: hostility to the changes in world trade that have shifted manufacturing industry to countries in central Europe and the Far East.
This last became particularly salient after the financial crisis of 2008, which demonstrated that the financial and economic model in which we had all been told to believe was fundamentally flawed. It might have been expected that this failure would assist anti-capitalist parties and movements. To some extent it did, but a critique of existing elites could be more easily incorporated into the nationalistic and nostalgic rhetoric that had been establishing itself: hostility to immigrants, to the European Union, in the case of Trump’s US hostility to most organizations for international cooperation.
Paradoxically, although individual nationalisms are rivals, they have been rather successful in forming a kind of ‘nationalist international’. The paradox is seen most clearly in relations between the Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini’s xenophobic La Lega in Italy. Orbán stirs up hostility to the EU because it tried to persuade central European countries help take the burden of refugees from the shoulders of Greece and Italy; Salvini stirs up hostility to the EU because he says it has done too little to make other countries help Italy with that burden. In principle Orbán and Salvini are on opposite sides in that dispute; but in practice they are close allies and friends. They are together in their hatred of the EU and their ability to use that hatred for political mobilization.
Co-operation among these groups has recently become more organized under the auspices of Steve Bannon, a former close associate of Donald Trump, who has brought American money to the organization of hostility to liberal developments and to the EU. To date it is difficult to identify any major success of this co-operation; its attempts to win a breakthrough in the 2018 elections to the European parliament were not very successful. Nevertheless, the power of nationalism and resentment at immigrants and refugees, and with them the other discontents being felt by socially conservative people remain extremely potent forces.