Nationalism Returns in Europe

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.

But in other countries, their influence is more indirect. These movements are not likely to gain power but they can shift the direction of political discourse, by taking ideas that formerly might have been consigned to the “sphere of deviance” (in the parlance of Daniel Hallin) and put them into the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” Formerly taboo subjects in European politics—among them questions of immigration, assimilation and nationality—have again become subjects of debate. And some other parties in Europe—those that often identify with the “national conservative” trend such as the True Finns (now the largest opposition party in Finland), Fidesz in Hungary or some of the constituent parts of Silvio Berlusconi’s Party of Freedom—can often benefit by presenting themselves as “less extreme” defenders of national interests. An interesting development in the recent elections in Ukraine was Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok urging voters uncomfortable with his party’s stances to then cast their ballots for former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party. (Svoboda is expected to become part of the “united opposition,” joining a range of other nationalist and democratic parties aligned against president Viktor Yanukovych.)

In Italy, Berlusconi now denounces a “hegemonic” Germany while the “Five Star” movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo—Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant and anti-establishment—won local elections in Sicily and, ahead of contentious national elections, is now in second place in pre-election opinion polls.

In France and Germany, bailout fatigue is driving even the establishment parties to talk more about putting national interests ahead of pan-European ones, though it risks damaging the common currency. Colm McCarthy complains that “the steps necessary to turn the malfunctioning currency union into a proper monetary union are not acceptable to Germany, the largest state in the EU and the co-designer of the euro,” in part because German voters are no longer enthusiastic about footing the bill for the rest of the EU.

Alongside the “natiocratic” movements have also arisen resurgent separatist movements, efforts to break apart larger European countries in favor of smaller, more homogenous, and—in theory—more accountable nation-states. Scotland—long viewed as an inseparable part of the United Kingdom—will hold a referendum on independence in 2014, due in no small part to the emergence of the Scottish Nationalists as the leading party in the regional parliament in Edinburgh. In Spain, pro-independence forces won local elections in the Basque Country this past month, and Catalan nationalists are expected to sweep local elections in Catalonia later in November. The future of a unified Spanish state may then be up for grabs. In Belgium, the New Flemish Alliance—which, although it won the most votes in the 2010 elections, was kept out of government by a grand coalition of other parties—has swept local elections in Flanders, and promises to put the question of secession back on the agenda.

If the European political scene for the last two decades was dominated by social-democratic and center-right parties, all with a commitment to European integration, the rise of natiocratic, national conservative and separatist parties to prominence—even to the point of entering governments—has the power to fundamentally reshape the European political landscape. For all the heady talk about how Europe was on the verge of transcending the nation-state, good old-fashioned nationalism is set to make a dramatic comeback.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.