In his final address to the European Parliament in 1995, then-French President François Mitterrand, whose failing health was evident to all, found the following indelible words to characterize Europe’s great scourge: “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre!”
Nationalism and war were the defining experiences of Mitterrand’s political career, and he was referring not only to the dreadful past – the first half of the 20th century, with its two World Wars, dictatorships and the Holocaust. He viewed nationalism as the greatest future threat to European peace, democracy and security.
Although nationalist war was tearing apart Yugoslavia at the time, few of those who listened to Mitterrand in Strasbourg that day could have imagined that, 21 years later, nationalism would be experiencing a Europe-wide revival. But nationalist politicians whose declared goal is to destroy Europe’s unity and peaceful integration have now won in major democratic elections and referenda.
The United Kingdom’s decision in June to leave the European Union marked a momentary climax for resurgent nationalism, but one can also see it on the march in Hungary, Poland and France, where Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front have been gaining strength in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.
How could it have come to this, given Europe’s first-hand experience with nationalism’s destructive power in the twentieth century, when it caused millions of deaths and devastated the entire continent?