Nationalism Returns in Europe

The rise of natiocratic, national conservative and separatist parties has the power to fundamentally reshape the European political landscape.

Parliamentary elections held recently in Ukraine confirmed an ongoing trend in Europe. Extreme right-wing parties are crossing the threshold of electoral acceptability and becoming mainstream political figures.

The nationalist party Svoboda, which sees itself as ideologically aligned with France’s traditional far-right National Front, won 10 percent of the vote and is expected to take 33 seats in the Rada, Ukraine’s legislature. In contrast, in the 2007 parliamentary ballot, Svoboda garnered less than 1 percent of the vote.

A movement like Svoboda describes its guiding ideology as natsiokratiya, often rendered as “natiocracy,” the belief that the state’s job is to protect the interests of its titular nationality. Svoboda’s rallying cry in the recent elections was “Our Own Authorities, Our Own Property, Our Own Dignity, on Our Own God-Given Land”—sentiments that resonate in other European countries as well.

This tracks with what has been observed in other European countries. In Greece, the Golden Dawn movement, long seen as a fringe organization, polled 14 percent in elections earlier this year. In Hungary, the “Movement for a Better Hungary” (Jobbik), which in 2006 received around 2 percent of the vote, is now the third largest party represented in parliament. In France, Marine Le Pen took nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2012 French presidential elections, coming in third behind Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande—the highest numbers the National Front has ever polled in a national election.

The Western media has tended to focus on these parties’ xenophobia—their fulminations against immigrants, national minorities and Jews—and generally has explained their sudden rise in the polls as “protest votes” against existing governments for their failures in meeting the prolonged economic crisis in Europe. The implication is that all “right-thinking” people reject these groups, and that such parties have obtained votes only by preying on the frustrations of those out of work.

But the underlying reality is that these parties are gaining influence because a growing number of Europeans no longer have faith in the “European dream” and in the promise of unification leading to shared prosperity. They also capitalize on a loss of faith in the wisdom and effectiveness of traditional political and economic elites, and an increasing mistrust of leaders who are more likely to cultivate transnational associations rather than identify with the “sons of the soil.” As the late Samuel Huntington wrote in these pages eight years ago, members of this global elite “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations.”

At the same time, the steady migration of substantive policy-making authority away from local, national authorities to less-accountable European-wide institutions (or, in the case of Ukraine, worries about authority slipping away from the central government in Kiev to a Russian-dominated customs union) has galvanized political forces that want to keep the focus of decision-making squarely centered on the nation-state. Indeed, Ralf Dahrendorf’s prophetic warning in The National Interest eleven years ago has come to pass: "The weakening of the nation-state by a process of internationalization is by the same token a weakening of democracy."

When Jobbik held its 6th party congress in 2009, it invited representatives of other like-minded parties like Svoboda to send delegates to Budapest. They created the Alliance of European National Movements as an umbrella organization uniting political groups that share a common “natiocratic” ideology. They unequivocally reject the position that the state must extend its protection equally upon all residents located within its jurisdiction. They also take a resolutely anti-globalization stance and are profoundly skeptical in their attitudes towards the European Union.

In the past, such parties existed at the fringe of politics, rarely crossing electoral thresholds to gain even a single representative in a national parliament. They could thus be isolated from the political mainstream. Today, some of these movements are now poised to become kingmakers in parliamentary systems where governments rest on unstable coalitions.