Proponents of deeper European integration tend to be dismissive of their opponents. Eurosceptics in the Dutch Freedom Party, the French National Front, or the United Kingdom Independence Party, they say, offer simple solutions for simple people. They are populists and "extreme" right-wingers who appeal to an insidious nationalism that has emerged in Europe again as the result of the economic and single-currency crises, who see the world in black-and-white terms in which the European Union is all evil and responsible for problems in their own countries.
To an extent, that is what the aforementioned parties and their voters have in common. Their criticisms and grievances often have merit—whether they are about a sprawling European bureaucracy that doles out billions of euros in subsidies that distort agricultural markets and fund ridiculously overpriced and unneeded infrastructure projects in especially former East Bloc member states or the disastrous consequences of ethnic integration policies (or lack thereof) pursued in the name of multiculturalism. What is unusual is rather than proposing to tackle these problems one by one, the Eurosceptics see them as the inevitable outcomes of an attempt to delegitimize the nationstate, pursued, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage puts it, by a "liberal elite" both at home and in Brussels.
The Netherlands' Geert Wilders similarly rallies against a politically correct cultural elite that supposedly inhabits the seventeenth-century villas along the Amsterdam canals. He plans to team up with France's Marine Le Pen in next year's elections for the European Parliament who decries the erosion of French sovereignty. "I am neither left nor right, I am a French patriot," she likes to say. The rise of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy shows that the antiestablishment sentiment transcends the traditional left-right divide.
If the Eurosceptics overestimate not only the malevolence, but surely also the influence of their Europhile counterparts, the latter exaggerate when they berate them as fanatics while simultaneously belittling their supporters by failing to take their grievances seriously.
Emblematic was a declaration put out earlier this month in the name of all major parties in the European Parliament which lumped together "nationalism, anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic intolerance on the part of movements opposing the European project" and naturally derided them. It described nationalism as "primitive" and argued that Eurosceptics were attempting to undermine the peace that has been achieved since the end of World War II.
Verbally, the Europhiles can be even more hysterical. Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian chairman of the socialists in the European Parliament, blamed the "xenophobic, aggressive climate inflamed by populists such as UKIP" for the death of an Italian man in Kent this month. He further claimed, without offering any proof, that "the rhetoric of the Conservatives in government"—many of whom favor a British exit from the EU—"is now leading to murder in the streets of Britain."
Swoboda's predecessor as socialist leader and the current European Parliament president Martin Schulz previously called a Dutch member a "fascist" for having the gall to ask to see the European Commission president's receipts. The liberal party leader, Graham Watson, once compared Eurosceptics to the German Nazis.
The rhetoric seems startling, as do the federalists' fantasies whose ultimate design is no less ambitious than President Woodrow Wilson's schemes for a progressive new world order after the First World War. They not only seek to do away with any sense of national attachment, but honestly don't understand why anyone would not want to. After all, wasn't it nationalism that produced two world wars?
Nationalism played its part, but few historians today would argue it was exclusively to blame or even a decisive factor. The Europhiles' antinationalism is at best naive, as is their unshakable faith in European integration which, they write, "has been, and remains, central to the fight against ethnic intolerance"—even if there is very little the EU does concretely to fight bigotry, besides passing such nicely-worded resolutions.
(In a similar vein, the Europhiles tend to forget NATO when they celebrate more than sixty years of peace in the European community.)
The simplistic perceptions and rhetoric of both extremes in the European debate goes some way to explaining why leaders often seem so feeble and ineffective. They know that the Eurosceptics sometimes make fair points, but that it would be ludicrous to do away with the EU altogether. They also know that the Europhiles get it wrong when they propose to do away with nationalism. Nationalism isn't some outdated political ideology. National leaders know that it is there and sometimes channel it for their own political purposes. They can hardly be expected to go up against their increasingly Eurosceptic electorates and tell them—as the European parliamentarians who hardly anyone votes for do—that they are "primitive."
Instead, wary of antagonizing the Eurosceptics by speaking out in favor of the EU, they usually keep their mouths shut about what they're doing in Brussels while the Europhiles cheer them on and promise a future in which borders are meaningless and the European peoples are one. As long as that is the only pro-European vision voters will hear, they are more likely to continue voting against it.
Nick Ottens is a historian from the Netherlands who researched Muslim revivalist movements and terrorism in nineteenth century Arabia, British India and the Sudan. He has been published in Asia Times Online, Elsevier and The Seoul Times and is a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat.
Image: Jennifer Jane Mills. CC BY 2.0.