The triumph of nationalism

How extremist and nationalist forces are growing across Europe in the face of financial crisis and growing xenophobia.

Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders' rejection of Dutch austerity measures caused the government of the Netherlands to fall [AP]

London, United Kingdom – 
“The battle for France has just started”, declared a triumphant Marine Le Pen after her impressive score in the first round of the French presidential election. She immediately added that her party, the far right National Front, was ready to “defend French identity”.

This “battle” is, however, much wider – and involves the same future of the European Union, and international relations too. In an historical era characterised by economic uncertainty, austerity plans and the perceived interference of international markets, the EU and Germany in national sovereignty, nations run the risk of strengthening domestic narrow nationalisms and experiencing the growth of extremist forces, along with the rise of old and new “resentment” between regional neighbours.

The recent defeat of Berlusconi’s movement in local elections may lead some activists to radicalise further and threaten the government by adopting a more open anti-European stance.

On April 23, after the French elections, Le Pen’s “anti-European” breakthrough was lauded among several sectors of European political society – and especially in some countries suffering recession and austerity measures. In Italy, for example, leading members of Silvio Berlusconi’s party backed the French extreme right leader. The former minister of defence, Ignazio La Russa, also a former neo-fascist leading militant – while ostensibly forced to support Mario Monti’s technocrat domestic government – said that this was the success of a “modern, European and democratic right”, one that “loves its own country” and which is worried about the preservation of national identity and excessive taxation.

Daniela Santanche – a possible new leader for the centre-right in the next general elections (and one of Berlusconi’s favourites) – similarly praised Marine Le Pen and her policies. In her views, these strategies should be adopted by the Italian mainstream right too. This is, however, by no means surprising, considering that Santanche had already invited Le Pen to Italy, and had introduced her to some political and business circles.

The recent defeat of Berlusconi’s movement in local elections (6 and 7 May) may lead some activists to radicalise further and threaten the government by adopting a more open anti-European stance. Meanwhile, Il Giornale, a major newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, argued that socialist François Hollande’s victory was, above all, a “punch to Europe” and a “slap” to those Europeans who “imposed technocrats” in Greece and Italy. There is now the fear that this anger will spread further, and across other countries too – while the game is now opening in the coming French parliamentary elections: will the National Front enter parliament? How will this change the landscape of French political life?

‘Fortress Europe’

In reality, some Euro-elites should simply (and finally) accept that this is “only” the outcome of cuts in public spending, fears for the collapse of welfare systems threaten by some suprational powers’ hidden agendas, unachieved (EU) political federal unity, high levels of unemployment, a supposed weakness of the West and also the image of a “Fortress Europe” assaulted by banks and markets as well as external forces such as immigration or the demographic swelling of Muslim communities. As said, it is also contributing to the reorganisation of the whole far-right environment, beyond the usual known parties. All this is particularly mixed with the troubled austerity plans and rising tension among ordinary citizens who feel that there is no clear democratic legitimacy for these types of reforms.

These extreme nationalists will be gaining soon additional electoral support and attract new sympathisers across almost all European states.

Even one of the promoters of this austere new European lifestyle, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was been forced to resign, after one of his coalition allies – the anti-Islam and anti-EU Geert Wilders – rejected the “imposed” budgetary plan. It was, in his view, in contrast to national citizens’ interests: “We don’t want our pensioners to suffer for the sake of the dictators in Brussels,” party leader Wilders said.

In some sectors of European politics, this was perceived like a bolt from the blue. What Wilders had done (and said) is, however, far from surprising. This is in line with Europe’s extreme-right tendency to reject the frame, organisation and bureaucracy of the European Union. Many of them call for a different type of Europe – a Europe of “free nations”, fatherlands and “people”.

There are, in fact, several current attempts to re-organise extremist forces through international associations – one of the latest, in February, was the creation in Rome of a European Social Movement (“old” name, the first one was established in 1951) with activists from many European countries. For a historian of these movements this is, indeed, unsurprising too: there has constantly been a far-right tendency to promote or cope with a more pan-national dimension and a certain type of Europeanism. The comical paradox is when academic or state bodies deny funding to these studies because they are deemed “not very timely”.

These extreme nationalists will soon be gaining additional electoral support and attract new sympathisers across almost all European states. Some of them adopt a political agenda openly challenging capitalism, globalisation, liberalism and criticising EU policies on the economic crisis and Greece. Their rhetoric made by references to national security, narrow forms of territorial belonging, and the defence of local identities, can be appealing in these troubled times. Once again, it is not really unanticipated, in this sense, that the neo-fascist group Golden Dawn entered the Greek parliament after the elections held on May 6. It attracted voters (many of them disillusioned with existing politics and the economic crisis of the country) on the basis of anti-German, anti-Europe and anti-immigrant propaganda. After the election, its main leader argued against some alleged national “traitors” and questioned the debt to be paid to foreign investors and the agreement for the bailout.  

‘I have heard you’

The problem is also when these protest voters became attractive for the mainstream politicians. Nicolas Sarkozy played a hazardous game in trying to woo the National Front’s voters in the second round of presidential voting – with constant references to his love for the fatherland and the protection of France’s borders.

“I have heard you,” he said. In saying this, he also meant to be aware they want to maintain a French-based “way of life”. If re-elected, would he have defended this exception française from all foreign interference? And, if so, how? Moreover, was he really ready to break the famous cordon sanitaire against the National Front and, consequently, look for an official agreement with Marine Le Pen?

In truth, the National Front preferred the demise of the former French president – in order to become the only nationalist opposition in the country, Sarkozy’s approach showed a great contradiction and another peril for the current “fiscal stability” alliance with Germany. These voters were and are essentially against the idea of Europe promoted by the Merkel-Sarzozy enterprise. Their call was for the primacy of nation and national citizens-only based policies, against the EU bureaucracy, and for the preservation of a narrow concept of identity.

How will Angela Merkel, the European Central Bank and the other Euro-elites react to all this? It is certainly an additional burden for them, but the evidence shows that they are still only partially focusing on these things properly. For a long time, the main preoccupation was the eventual re-election of Sarkozy’s – or Hollande’s approach towards the EU fiscal pact, while a new, and probably fairer, politics of economic growth and investments would be soon needed to mitigate the effects of austerity and recession in the lives of disillusioned (and often angry) common people. Otherwise, Le Pen and Wilders will only represent two little signs of a growing and complex issue – which will influence Europe’s life for years to come.

Andrea Mammone is a historian at London’s Kingston University. He has also been a political commentator for Al Jazeera, the BBC, Sky News, Voice of America, The Independent, Foreign Affairs and the International Herald Tribune. His Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy will be out later this year. He coedited Mapping the Extreme Right in Contemporary Europe and Italy Today: The Sick Man of Europe.

Follow him on Twitter: @Andrea_Mammone