Neo-Nationalism

This Land Is Our Land, Not Yours

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, looks on at a No campaigner during a walkabout in Ellon, Scotland during Thursday's vote, which delivered Mr. Salmond a resounding defeat. The author argues that despite this, nationalism in Europe is here to stay. Source: AP/Scott Heppell
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, looks on at a No campaigner during a walkabout in Ellon, Scotland during Thursday's vote, which delivered Mr. Salmond a resounding defeat. The author argues that despite this, nationalism in Europe is here to stay.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A growing wave of nationalist sentiment within many European Union member states is both a threat and an opportunity for the concept of European unity.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Scottish nationalists failed in their bid for independence, with 55 percent voting to stay in the United Kingdom in a referendum on Thursday.
    • Other separatist movements in Europe include the Flemish in Belgium, the Catalans and Basques in Spain and Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine.
    • Nationalist groups are also on the rise, like the French Front National, the Lega Nord in Italy and Germany’s AfD.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Historical coincidences are rare. So it would seem to be just a whim of history that so many corners of Europe are awash with feelings of nationalism just as the Scots, with their referendum on whether to separate from the United Kingdom, decided on Friday morning by 55 percent to 45 percent to vote no.

Still, the calls for less centrist, more local authority have been heard at Westminster. British Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech Friday morning saying his government will now look at how to ensure that the four parts of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – will in future have more control over their own affairs.

In fact, many nationalities have long coveted separation from the states that they belong to and longed for a chance to go their own way. In Belgium, the Flemish are pushing for independence, while in Spain, the Catalans and Basques are shaking the foundations of national unity. In Ukraine, nationalism has exploded into violence as separatists there seek a return to the lap of Mother Russia.

For the European Union, the clamor for independence is both a defeat for the ideal of European unity and an opportunity to alter the political dynamic.

“The state wants to order and discipline the people,” said Herfried Münkler, professor of political theory at Humboldt University in Berlin and the author of numerous books on politics. “The nation, on the other hand, stirs them.”

There hasn’t been this much stirring for a long time.

For the first time in 300 years, the economically and politically successful construct of nation states is being openly questioned in Europe. Germany’s good fortune – that its nation and its federal states remain on the same page despite the conflicts between various states – is no longer the rule.

The centrifugal force of nationalism is tearing away at the existing institutional state framework without a viable new framework to replace it. At first glance, it seems grotesque that at a time when global political and economic demands require a concentration of power, Europe’s nations are splitting up after more than 60 years of integration. A second look reveals the bitter irony that citizens agitating for independence will, in fact, likely become more dependent on “foreign powers.”

For the European Union, the clamor for independence is both a defeat for the ideal of European unity and an opportunity to alter the political dynamic.

Defeat, because anger at the control wielded from Brussels contributes to the feelings of isolation and impotence that fuel nationalist political movements including the French Front National, the Lega Nord in Italy and the Alternative for Germany, all of which are on the upswing. While they don’t threaten the existence of France, Italy or Germany, the nationalist parties have become a sanctuary for people who believe they no longer have a strong voice in the direction their nations are taking. These feelings of anger and frustrations are exacerbated by hard economic times throughout much of Europe.

The return of nationalism to the political stage is also an opportunity for Europe. Even as the Scots seek more distance from London, they want to cozy up closer to Brussels.

Yet the return of nationalism to the political stage is also an opportunity for Europe. It is not a contradiction, but political expediency that even as the Scots seek more distance from London, they want to cozy up closer to Brussels. The European Union still offers the best way to preserve the competitiveness of national diversity while maintaining the institutional framework to compete against an array of global powerhouses. It remains capable of helping peacefully resolve conflicts between nations, something that seems almost forgotten as the crisis in Ukraine continues to rage.

What’s important now is how the European Union reacts to the clamor for independence. The Scottish ‘No’ vote does not mean that nationalism will be laid to rest. The genie is out of the bottle and must be controlled.

Frequent demands that a globalized, hyper-competitive and interlinked world requires Europe to throw its national identities and conflicts into the dustbin of history have instead brought about the opposite result. That’s not the way to get rid of national interests.

It is better to retain and strengthen the national state, where it remains vital as an identity-defining territory of a mutually supportive society. How necessary this is has been seen again in the debt crisis. Future action on economic and political integration will be measured by whether they allow nations sufficient breathing room. Mr. Münkler recommends nations and ethnic groups be integrated into the European Union together with a certain degree of statehood to provide them with the necessary elasticity.

If that isn’t successful, then Europe truly faces disintegration, whether through separatists like those in Scotland, or through nationalist movements in E.U. member states.

The author is Handelsblatt’s international correspondent. He can be reached at riecke@handelsblatt.com

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