Europe is pushing back against nationalism

Nationalist movements seem to be faltering, but that has not meant a return to business as usual. The ground has fundamentally shifted as voters across Europe express their desire for change.



By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli (Euroscope)

Published: Sat 31 Aug 2019, 11:05 PM

Last updated: Sun 1 Sep 2019, 1:07 AM

"I have heard a lot about what you're against," said the wise man, "but what are you actually for?"
It's a question that could have easily been asked throughout the Western world in the past few years as political leaders rode a rising tide of nationalism. In the US, President Donald Trump seems against almost anything to do with other countries. In Britain, the slow-motion train wreck of Brexit continues to unfold. In Italy, Matteo Salvini rose to prominence by pointing at the European Union and vowing defiance. It is a similar story in France with Marine Le Pen. Even the reassuring figure of Angela Merkel as the chancellor of Germany was hobbled by nationalist factions in her country.
Of course, the answer from all the nationalists to the sage's query would be the same: "I am for us and against them." It's a refrain that has resonated with tribes since time immemorial.
Yet like a feverish summer night's dream, the virulent nationalist spectre seems to be receding back into the shadows. People are shaking off the startling events of 2016, looking at the dire landscape advocated by nationalist movements, and deciding that a world of cooperation, cohesion, and mutual gain, after all, might be better.
It's what the founders and supporters of the EU said all along. And they earned those ideals in the sacrifices of WWII.
Today Salvini has plummeted in a spectacular self-inflicted fall. French President Emmanuel Macron, the poster boy for EU integration, is rising in the polls after the chaos of the yellow vest protest movement. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany disrupted the status quo, then fell into internecine warfare.
Developments in Italy have meant a return of the Democratic Party (PD) to the governing coalition, bringing with it a fundamental commitment to the EU and conventional notions on how to encourage economic growth. Last week the markets reacted dramatically, with the closely watched spread in sovereign bond yields between Germany and Italy settle at the lowest in a year.
A recent survey showed approval for French President Macron rose slightly in July following an 11-point surge early this year. His strongest support is among managers and educated professionals as well as merchants, artisans, and entrepreneurs. He is least liked by blue collar workers, who more strongly back Le Pen's National Rally (NR) party.
Yet the NR is embroiled in not only political squabbling but also a family dispute as the heirs to founder Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right dynasty are in open conflict. In July Marine Le Pen dismissed her niece Marion Marechal's bid to form a new rightwing coalition with a faction she leads.
In Spain, a new nationalist wave never really developed at all. The painful history of nationalism under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco until the 1970s is still a fresh memory.
Nationalist movements seem to be faltering, but that has not meant a return to business as usual. The ground has fundamentally shifted as voters across Europe express their desire for change. Traditional political powers have given up parliamentary seats to new or re-energised parties.
Long pillars of French political life, the Socialist Party, and the centre-right Les Républicains, which in various names or forms provided presidents and parliamentary majorities for nearly six decades, together polled just 14 per cent of the vote in May for EU parliamentary seats. In fact, Macron's rise to power in 2017 can be seen as the true beginning of their decline.
Italy's latest coalition government is set to be formed between the PD and the 5-Star Movement (M5S), now the largest single bloc in Italy's parliament. Founded a decade ago by a political comedian, the M5S was considered a fringe party of unorthodox ideas until it rose to power last year.
In Germany, the Greens have been around since 1980, but only recently gained real traction with the anti-establishment sentiment that swept Europe. They outpolled the traditional Social Democratic Party in the recent EU elections and are even challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.
What is certain is that Europe has been altered. Younger voters view climate change as the existential question of our time, while a range of citizens are weary of the old, elegantly entitled and well-entrenched power players. Perhaps holding the levers of power too long, traditional parties are often viewed as part of a system of institutionalised patronage that has lost touch with the common man.
As the font of Western civilisation, it seems Europe is making a renewed burst of social innovation. Once-fringe parties are rising and joining retooled versions of traditional parties. New movements are wielding actual power as the voters increasing assert that the old system was broken.
Nationalists for a time tapped into that sentiment, but it seems their vision lacked the depth to truly spread in a significant way. Simply being against globalism is not enough.
Europe is now a new work in progress. That reformation has yet to take a tidy form, but it does seem to be clearly standing up for some things: mutual growth, care for the planet, perhaps even our shared humanity.
Stay tuned to the developments. These are interesting times in Europe.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com news agency in Milan


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