Nationalism, it was once said, had been consigned to the dustbin of history. The birth of the European Union (EU) – by this view – put an end to the old tribal loyalties that wreaked such havoc on the continent. Instead, nation states would move quickly toward a common destiny, an integrated political framework and a shared identity.
Or, at least, that was the plan. But amid the refugee crisis and growing public anxiety over the pace and scale of European integration, political parties that actively play on the old ethnic nationalist themes are enjoying some of their strongest results ever.
You might have noticed some of them. Last weekend the Swiss People’s Party, a radical right party that devotes considerable energy to opposing Islam, migration and the EU, finished in first place, with 29 per cent of the vote. As one observer of European politics noted, it was the strongest result for a radical right party in the entire post-war period in Western Europe. Nor should it be seen in isolation.
A few days before the result in Switzerland, in the Austrian city of Vienna, anxiety over growing numbers of asylum-seekers helped push the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Austria to reach 32 per cent of the vote, coming a strong second to the Social Democrats in what is a historic stronghold for the left.
It is a similar story further west. In the Netherlands, where the openly anti-Islam Geert Wilders is also topping the polls. The same formula appears to be working in Sweden, where the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have enjoyed a surge of support to over 20 per cent, sometimes higher.
In France, meanwhile, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is bracing for regional elections where polls indicate that the toxic radical right leader and her niece (also a Le Pen) look set to take control of two areas.
But it is not accurate to trace these gains solely to the refugee crisis. The reality is more complex and it is also deeply problematic for the EU. Whereas once upon a time working-class voters wielded considerable electoral power, they increasingly find themselves a minority force, suffering from Western democracies’ move toward post-industrial and more highly educated economies, where the middle classes and graduates are dominant. Most mainstream parties chase the latter, which leaves space for more ideologically radical parties that pitch to a very different set of concerns.
The refugee crisis is merely the latest event to expose these deeper rifts. The unresolved problems of more financially insecure workers now sit uneasily with the strategies of the main parties and the EU, which too often appear indifferent or even scathing about the anxiety of workers about issues like the free movement of people and the excesses of global capitalism. This helps to explain, for example, why charismatic populists like Marine Le Pen have enjoyed some of their sharpest gains in territory that was long been held by the left. Such parties are rallying those who have been left behind financially, together with the culturally threatened who feel their way of life is under threat, and who view the EU as an organisation that is either unwilling or unable to respond.
Matthew J Goodwin is professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent and co-author of ‘Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain’
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