Introduction, by Patricia Sibal

While the rise of nationalism has taken place on a global scale, nationalist sentiment has permeated Europe with particular intensity. The most prominent examples are the cases of Britain, which voted to leave the European Union in 2016, and France, where the Front National’s second-place finish indicated extreme anti-immigrant, anti-EU attitudes in the country. However, by no means is nationalism limited to these two cases. In Sweden, which is generally regarded as a progressive and liberal country, nationalism has emerged in response to a mass influx of refugees and the proliferation of fake news. In Poland and Hungary, nationalism arose in mainstream politics and has resulted in troubling trends of democratic backsliding and political illiberalism. This comparative perspective of European nationalism analyzes both the common and unique features of nationalism in each of these countries.

Western Europe: UK and France, by Asma Saad

The Facts

Last April, French’s far-right party, led by Marine Le Pen, lost to centrist Emmanuel Macron, leader of En Marche! The FN’s campaign against globalization, the EU, immigration, and ‘elites’ nonetheless won 34% of voters during the second round of presidential elections. Marine Le Pen’s campaign stood in firm contrast with Macron’s neoliberalist views, and was based on a nationalist vision of patriotism. She called on  ‘all sincere patriots’ to vote for her party in the second round of presidential elections. Marine Le Pen’s protectionist conception of patriotists is that they oppose globalization, favor ‘national priority’ and ‘monetary sovereignty’. Thus, Le Pen’s patriotism represents more than a sentiment: it is also a conviction, an ideology, which, without ever labeling it as such, adheres to nationalist principles.

Marine Le Pen during the Presidential campaign. Photo by Rémi Noyon, via Flickr Creative Commons.

During last year elections in Britain, the far-wing party, UKIP, did not witness a comparable success to France’s FN. In fact, the party failed to secure a single MP to Westminster, which is a drastic contrast to the 2015 elections, to which they received a support of 3.8 million voters. Part of this can be explained by a belief that the party’s ‘raison d’être’ has been obliterated with the Brexit vote of 2016. But the rejection of UKIP voters can also be explained by the absorption of UKIP voters through Theresa May’s anti-immigration and explicit Brexit agenda. UKIP’s decrease in support thus does not suffice to establish the claim that anti-immigration sentiment is a matter of the past in the UK.

In the UK, a research led by the former Labour cabinet minister John Denham indicates English voters increasingly associate with an English identity rather than to a more diverse United Kingdom, while British patriotism is declining. Current prime minister of the UK, Theresa May, criticized the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for not standing up for the “proud and patriotic working-class people”. Such a conviction is similar to Le Pen’s anti-EU agenda, with argues that immigration reduces local recruitment and wages. But Theresa May’s stance in favour of Brexit is not rooted in a firm adherence to protectionism, or at least not as fervently as Ms Le Pen – indeed, for the prime minister of the UK, Brexit is a way for Britain to ‘prosper and forge new lucrative trade deals with non-European nations.’

The Causes

English nationalism surfaced during the Brexit campaign due in part to political parties stimulating a common patriotic feeling to push voters towards the Brexit vote. Brexit’s success among voters, and the  rise in English nationalism, has been attributed to inequality, a general sense of economic insecurity, and a sense of English identity that has been exploited by leaders. There is  little doubt that the Brexit campaign played on an existing sentiment of national pride, and its emotional appeal is part of what made it successful.

Ms Le Pen also plays upon a sense of identity and national pride, by standing as a rectifier to a sentiment of nostalgia, anxiety, and antipathy to the liberal international order. The FN incorporated  slogans in their  campaign which reflect  that sentiment, such asNo to Brussels, yes to France”. The nationalist elements she incorporates into her campaign are rather ‘defensive’, thus ‘‘based on a lack of confidence and a negative jingoism: the idea that I have to defend myself against the threat of others.” Britain’s vote in June to leave the EU also revolved around the hostility, or fear, of migrants, which has been evidenced by the campaign posters for Brexit depicting Middle Eastern migrants clamorously trying to enter the country. The campaign targeted bankers, migrants and ‘rootless experts’, and campaign slogans included “We want our country back”. Theresa May, the current leader of the party, statedIf you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

March for Europe in the UK. Photo by Alex J. White, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Other explanations for the support of Brexit or Ms Le Pen include a nostalgic belief that things were better in the past, and that globalization is inextricably linked to rising inequality and slower growth. There appears to be a deep-seated correlation between far right movements and the notion of insecurity, closely related to waves of migrants, terrorism, or economic hopelessness. In Britain, many analysts argue that voters were worried about dwindling wages and workers from other EU countries taking jobs away from the British citizens. In France, the vote for FN often symbolized an outlet through which voters could express their frustration and aspiration for change. This sentiment was expressed not only among social groups who feel dominated, but also among social groups who dominate yet feel excluded from the benefits of globalization. Poll results affirm that French voters, compared to voters of other European nations, are more likely to be opposed to the claim that globalization is ‘a force of good’, and close to half of the population think immigrants have had a negative impact on the country. For many French workers, the frustration comes from working hard-working jobs that pay for the allocations given to people who, in their view, don’t work as hard as they do.  

Such voters are seduced by Ms Le Pen’s promise to reduce allocations. Although FN voters share similar educational and economic background,  they remain divided and interests often collide. For example, members of independent professions who are hostile to allocations conflict with employees who consider allocations and social protections to be excessive among immigrants, but ultimately support these policies for themselves. It is largely in poor rural areas where the FN thrived, where schools, shops, and even trains, are often discontinued.

Cultural factors also play a role in the new nationalism, since many British and French citizens, particularly those of an older demographic, stated they ‘liked their countries as they were and never asked for the immigration that turned Europe more Muslim’, contesting the claims that their discomfort is rooted in racism. Ironically, ethnic nationalism could decrease as immigration, which has done much to stir that nationalism, increases. Indeed, in France, 77% of 18- to 24-years-olds believe that ‘globalisation is a force for good’, compared to 37% of French people, and few supporters of UKIP or the FN are young. That a nationalism reminiscent of past homogeneous societies can be countered thus becomes less unlikely, as new generations are born in cosmopolitan societies.

Northern Europe: Sweden,  by Sophia Kamps

Scandinavia is often regarded as a haven of liberal socialism. The region boasts government healthcare that is among the best in the world, one of the best public school systems in Finland, and the most humane prisons internationally. On the other hand, the right often characterizes Scandinavia as smug, politically correct and overly-progressive. However, with an influx of refugees challenging the relatively homogenous ethnic makeup of Scandinavian society, the characteristics of Scandinavian politics are in danger of changing dramatically. The most telling example is Sweden, where nationalism is on the rise.

While nativism has existed on the fringes of Swedish society for decades, it has been emerged  in the form of mainstream nationalism in the last three years. Sweden is a very small country, with a population of under 10 million people. Despite this, Sweden took in 240,000 refugees at the height of the refugee crisis, the largest number per capita of any country in Europe. The influx of refugees led to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment, reflected in the rise in xenophobic hate crimes and support for Sweden’s nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats. In April 2017, a man from Uzbekistan who had been denied the right to asylum drove a truck through crowded street, killing four and injuring 15; this tragedy sparked fear of refugees. After the incident, polls indicated that if an election were held that day, the Sweden Democrats would reap the second-highest number of overtaking the Moderates as Sweden’s second largest party.

After the attack, Mattias Karlson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, stated, “It was only a matter of time before such a terror attack hit Sweden.” The Sweden Democrats promised to grossly diminish the number of number of refugees granted asylum if they gained power.

A main complaint of  supporters of the Sweden Democrats is that Swedish media is underrepresenting the amount of crime committed by immigrants in an effort to maintain the government agenda of open borders. This claim was disproven in a study by the Delegation for Migration Studies in Sweden which showed that “the three most common stories on immigration discussed how immigration weakens social cohesion, how immigration results in more crime, and how it weakens Sweden’s economy.” However, despite this study, the belief that immigrant crime is underreported persists. Sweden is highly susceptible to “fake news.” A 2016 study showed that more than half of media consumers in Sweden have turned to non-traditional news sources for their news, and 20% of those consumers share that content to build  an image for themselves. This demonstrates the recent phenomenon of social media users consuming and then sharing non-credible information,  creating a chain of fake news.

Jimmie Åkesson, Chairman of the Sweden Democrats. Photo by Per Pettersson, via Flickr Creative Commons.

The American alt-right has also been reaching out to Sweden as an entry point for exporting their particular brand of anti-immigrant nationalism to Europe. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, white nationalist Richard Spencer explained his decision to turn to Swedes in creating his new alt-right media company, saying “It’s almost like Sweden is the most alt-right” of European countries. The American alt-right seeks to make an example out of Sweden because of the major influx of refugees, and the widespread belief that these immigrants have caused crime.

However, as of December 2017, polls reported the lowest support for the Sweden Democrats since 2015, most likely a result of stricter immigration policy which led to a reduction in the number of immigrants. While this might seem to bode well for the mainstream, liberal Swedish government, the Sweden Democrats still retain enough support to block a coalition government in the next election and have stated that they would “help vote down either a centre-left or centre-right coalition in 2018.”

Both Brexit and the election of Trump were credited, at least in part, to economic inequality and the disenfranchisement of working class people. However, this is clearly not the case in Sweden where inequality is extremely low; Sweden ranks 145 out of 150, signifying near perfect equality in income distribution. Instead, Sweden’s nationalism is rooted in sociocultural causes: fear of immigrants and fear of change. Sweden exemplifies how the internet and fake news can support prejudices and lead to the persistence of anti-immigrant views, which then influence the government and policy. Sweden is a warning, not of the effects of immigration on crime, but the effects of fake news on nationalism.

Eastern Europe: Hungary and Poland, by Will Keefe

While the scope of this discussion precludes an analysis of Eastern Europe with proper regard for its complexity and depth, the broad impact of nationalism in the region is undeniable. But what precisely is this impact and why is it important? Nationalism structures formal and informal political life in several Eastern European countries. The consequences and emergence of this structuring are highly unique and accordingly designate Eastern Europe a particularly interesting and important region to examine. To reveal these interesting and unique aspects of nationalism in Eastern Europe, we can ask: how does nationalism figure in politics and why it is important today?

Though it is sometimes regarded as such, nationalism in this context is not a “fringe” movement that vaguely haunts the margins of national political landscapes. Rather, the broad usage of the term “nationalism” can engage crucial regional and national patterns of far-right movements, populism, democratic backsliding, and judicial reform. While not immediately evident, these far-reaching implications should come as no surprise when a concept as fundamental as nationalism is applied to a region as varied and historically complex as Eastern Europe. Any doubt as to the existence of these patterns must contend with recent developments, most notably in Poland and Hungary.

Viktor Orbán at the European Parliament. Photo by Pietro Naj-Oleari, published online by European Parliament via Flickr Creative Commons.

In Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) Party appealed to nationalism to successfully gain power. Similarly, the Fidesz Party campaign in Hungary used blatant nationalism to take office. What happened when these parties took power? Scholars and international observers have decried the significant democratic backsliding that has since occurred in both cases. In both Poland and Hungary, nationalist parties have taken power, restructured and politicized the judiciary, and implemented transformative constitutional amendments. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán outwardly endorses an “illiberal democracy” positioned firmly against Western liberalism and the European Union. Far ahead of his US counterpart, Orbán constructed a fence along the southern border to restrain the forces of globalization and immigration that threaten traditional conservative and nationalistic values.

Orbán further leveraged nationalist sentiments to enact constitutional amendments that increase state power, politicize the judiciary, and limit the power of the constitutional court. In Poland, the nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) introduced three judicial reform bills that institutionally transform the Polish Supreme Court, the National Council of the Judiciary, and lower regional and appellate courts. These measures plainly and markedly decrease judicial independence in Poland. The mass protests that followed the proposal of these bills are perhaps illustrative of the gravity and flagrancy of this affront to judicial independence. These two cases are illustrative of nationalism’s potential impact. It further rejects the claim that nationalism is a marginal force at the fringes of political life.

Protests against the PiS’ judicial reform in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Grzegorz Żukowski, via Flickr Creative Commons.

But are these just idiosyncrasies that are ultimately attributable to each state’s particular post-communist transition, history, or socioeconomic circumstances? Maybe. It remains true, however, that the broadly-construed concept of nationalism is at the center of many far-right and populist movements. These movements are now an undeniable force in the region and the usage of nationalism by these movements seems to transcend any particular context. We ought to examine how nationalism presents itself in these larger regional movements today instead of dismissing it as an isolated event.  

This examination becomes more and more vital as mainstream parties begin to co-opt populist and far-right movements to increase support. Perhaps post-communist nation building, economic and cultural transitions from communism, or ethnic national identity formation can explain the current rise of nationalism. Given the unique role nationalism can play in defining states and identities, communist and post-communist history may be able to explain more recent patterns. This particular history sharply distinguishes Eastern Europe from the West and may help to explain variations in emergent nationalism.

Nationalism in Eastern Europe is quite plainly a “mainstream” political force that must be confronted. While the study of nationalism in this region is nothing new, recent developments further reinforce its necessity. The democratic backsliding and extremely troubling judicial reform in Poland and Hungary demonstrate the unique impact of nationalism in the region. More broadly, the rise of populist and far-right movements indicate that it is far from isolated. Regional history and these current patterns of nationalism sharpen the distinction between Eastern Europe and the rest of the continent.

The general discussion presented here has endeavoured to show that nationalism figures prominently in Eastern European politics and critically informs an understanding of current political landscapes. Nationalism should not be dismissed as marginal or unavoidable. It should be examined carefully. As the Polish and Hungarian cases show, the consequences are clearly dire.

Conclusion, by Patricia Sibal

In comparing nationalism across European countries, several common factors stand out: nostalgia for “better times,” frustration with socio-economic stagnation, and anxiety about rising crime. These frustrations are channeled into political movements which promise to restrict and exclude immigrants, and retreat from European integration. Once considered political outliers, nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-EU political parties are now experiencing a wave of unprecedented popularity and success. This analysis is by no means exhaustive, but the evidence clearly indicates that nationalism in Europe is fracturing a region once deemed a success in global governance. As the rise of nationalism continues, the future of European integration and cooperation looks increasingly bleak.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Feature Image by Justus Blümer, via Flickr Creative Commons.