Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism
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Europe and Brexit


Fisch, 2014 © Hiro Matsuoka

“It is not enough to say that it is illegal to be racist, that it is illegal to spread racial hatred. We need to make it absolutely clear that racism is not socially acceptable.”


Interview with Prof. Dr Julie Smith (Baroness Smith of Newnham), Director of the European Centre at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge

The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Hungary, Germany – no matter which European country examined, nationalist parties are on the rise, raising the question what factors lead to the resurgence of nationalism in Europe. Is it truly a threat to European democracy and if so, what are viable prevention measures? Dr Julie Smith gives a comprehensive overview of nationalist tendencies in Europe in the light of her background as a member of the UK House of Lords.

Dr Smith – scientists and politicians, among other, are alarmed about the threat of nationalist tendencies, that are arising once more in many countries across the world. How would you, as a political scientist, define the phenomenon of nationalism?

On one level, nationalism can be seen as pride in, or devotion to one’s own country; that would be a dictionary definition of it. However, it is often associated with less positive attributes, such as hatred of others, of either being opposed to other countries or having a xenophobic tinge. Identity is an evolving issue and problem in contemporary politics. There are clearly people who feel that their own identities are undermined by European integration and globalisation and have begun to query the nature of European and global politics in the 21st century. They are then looking back to their own nation. That can be quite dangerous because of the potential to foster confrontation of precisely the sort that European integration was intended to end. The second understanding of nationalism is about the desire for national independence, which means the idea that your nation has its own independent state. This is a concept that evolved in the 19th century. Take Scotland, for example: the people there have a strong sense of national identity and many want to be separate from the United Kingdom. But nationalism in Scotland is not accompanied by racism or violence. Therefore, it does not raise the same concerns as nationalism does in many other parts of the world.

Is there a form of nationalism that remains dangerous to this day? Is it – as often supposed – an actual threat to Europe?

Nationalism in terms of separatism does not need to be detrimental to the European Union. Indeed, in many ways, the European Union facilitates the possibility of smaller nation states. Scotland, for instance, is able to find examples in other small countries like Ireland and Denmark and can argue: ‘They function perfectly well within the European Union, why do we have to be tied to the United Kingdom?’ But there are areas where nationalism causes problems. Look, for example, at the public and political discussion in the Visegrad countries over the rights of refugees and the resulting increase in xenophobia in this area. So yes, nationalism can certainly be a danger, but it does not necessarily have to pose a threat to Europe.


“It is certainly possible to have multiple identities, multiple loyalties.”


Does that mean that national interests and a growing interconnectivity between countries do not have to be mutually exclusive?

Globalisation and economic interdependence ensure that states have lost a significant degree of autonomy – even if they retain formal sovereignty, they are less able to act independently. There is a need to ensure that citizens nevertheless feel that they are empowered rather than disempowered. Finding the balance in this relationship is one of the greatest challenges for policy makers in Europe and beyond, but it especially applies to the European Union. In some member states, like in France, there has long been an understanding that by pooling sovereignty you get better political outcomes for everyone in the EU; unfortunately, this is something that has never really been understood or accepted in the United Kingdom. It is certainly possible to have multiple identities, multiple loyalties and therefore be concerned about your local area, your country, your continent, and the world you live in. Each of them will have different aspects of decision making. This is not a contradiction, but very often in the UK it is treated as one.

War, legitimised by nationalist beliefs, caused millions of deaths in the 20th century. As a result, one of the founding ideas of the European Union was to prevent dangerous nationalism through interconnectivity of the member states once and for all. What would you say, how has that worked out so far?

European integration very much started as a peace project to make war among European states materially impossible. It is based on the understanding and expectation that the more European countries cooperated, the more people would engage, exchange in terms of travel, work and study abroad. The idea was that they would then begin to identify much more as Europeans and focus less on their own national identities. What seems to have happened is a political willingness in most countries – my own country may be the exception – to work together and cooperate. Nonetheless, this has not in all cases taken away the nationalist feelings within the society. The problem is in many ways that national identities are so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to overcome them. If people don’t identify with the European Union, if they don’t develop a European identity, they don’t turn out to vote as the elections to the European Parliament have shown. They choose not to be engaged and the democratic legitimacy of European actors comes into question. The growing political and economic interconnectivity in Europe was not accompanied by enough socialisation, especially of newer member states. For many European politicians and citizens, it seems to be unclear what European integration is about. Europe is not just an economic club. It is a club of values. We need to get European values higher up the political agenda again in all member states.

So in your opinion there has been a rise of nationalism in Europe once more throughout the last years?

Yes. I think there are significant waves of nationalism. Particularly in the United Kingdom, where so much of the “Leave” dynamic was grounded on the basis of an anti-immigrant sentiment. The legacy has been racism, including physical attacks and verbal abuse towards both EU-nationals and other non-British people resident here. This development is absolutely shocking.

What are the main reasons for the nationalist tendencies you just described?

The rise or resurgence of nationalism in many cases, certainly in Western Europe, seems to result in part from people feeling left behind. They feel that the processes of globalisation, economic interdependence and also European integration have not benefited them. That there are winners and losers. If the European Union is not delivering for you, if you never travel to other European countries, a common currency is of no interest to you. People who do not travel regularly will also not care about the abolition of roaming charges, simply because they do not benefit from this development. It is very easy for people to forget that: For people who live a more international life, who benefit from programs like the Erasmus scheme and so on.


“Europe is not just an economic club. It is a club of values.”


But in many parts of the United Kingdom or the European Union in general, people do not feel that they are benefiting in the same way that other people appear to be. This has caused significant frustration and certainly was one of the issues the “Leave” campaign profited from. People who traditionally voted for the Labour Party, which means left of centre, were voting “Leave” and in some cases shifting support to the UK Independence Party. The same is happening in other countries. If you look at France:  Over the years, the Front National has taken votes from the sort of people who, in the past, would have voted for the Communist Party. Quite often you see that the far right is able to take votes from people who feel left behind, people who might normally cast their vote in favour of a left-wing party. During the referendum, the very “Leavers” who were complaining that the establishment was against them, actually belonged to the establishment themselves. They were able to talk in a way that resonates better with people who feel left behind. Whereas the people who run the “Remain” campaign just sounded like they were out of touch.

How does this feeling of being left behind lead to hatred and racism? Why do people blame foreigners for the perceived injustices?

In the United Kingdom far-right politicians and especially parts of the media continuingly implied that if you had problems to get a job, a place for your child in school or a hospital bed, that is because there are too many foreigners. This idea that immigrants are to be blamed for all sorts of personal problems became mainstream over the years. Ahead of last year’s referendum, for example, the Daily Mail was keen to illustrate cases of nationals of other EU member states who had committed terrible crimes. It was highlighted how dreadful they felt it was that we cannot deport them, because they are from other EU countries. Inevitably, such coverage affects people’s attitudes.

Do you think that as a consequence the decision of the British citizens to exit the European Union was motivated by nationalist feelings within society?

The vote to leave was very complex. Some people voted to leave because they wanted to regain national sovereignty. They wanted – in the words of the slogan – to ‘take back control’. Some people believed the rhetoric about the EU to be very costly and that we would get money back after Brexit. But the “Leave” campaign certainly used a sort of anti-immigrant feeling within the country to persuade people to vote to leave the European Union. In some parts of the country, where a lot of nationals come from the subcontinent; from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the “Leave” campaign deployed the following rhetoric: When we leave the European Union, more of your families will be able to migrate to the UK as we won’t have to accept as many EU nationals anymore. That was obviously attractive to some voters. Yet elsewhere the “Leave” campaign was implying that somehow by voting to leave, immigration would be reduced, which is not necessarily going to follow. But the “Leave” campaign certainly politicised the immigration question and weaponised it.

The British society is known for being open as well as being a melting pot of many ethnicities and cultures. How do the described nationalist tendencies fit into this picture?

The UK has a very long history as a transit country and a country of immigration. There are people that came here, as some of my forebears did, from Ireland, escaping grinding poverty. There were people who intended to travel through Europe via the UK to the United States but never got beyond the cities of the United Kingdom. There have been significant waves of immigration over the years from Commonwealth nations, particularly in the aftermath of World War II. The United Kingdom tried to espouse multiculturalism but at several times in our history, there have been racist reactions to immigration. It is slightly too easy to think that the United Kingdom implemented a multicultural policy, which brought all the different cultures together and everything was fine. I think for many people who came here as immigrants, the reality was different. However, over the years there were moves to ensure that racism was eradicated. The depressing reality in the aftermath of the referendum was that some of these tendencies re-emerged. How we can get that genie back into the bottle is hugely important, to ensure that, as a country, we can come back together.

Do you think nationalist tendencies could worsen after Brexit as the British society will become increasingly isolated, and while the vibrant exchange with other cultures may suffer?

I think that’s a real danger. A lot of people who led the “Leave” campaign passionately claimed, ‘We are not anti-European, we love Europe, we go to Europe on our holidays, we just don´t like the EU.’ Genuinely, there are some internationalists who were in favour of leaving because they felt that the problem were the tight structures of the EU and its institutions, not Europe itself. But it is probable that only a small proportion of the “Leave” supporters felt that way. Many of its leaders are part of the establishment and may simply be assuming that they won’t be impoverished intellectually or culturally by the UK leaving. But as a country we will be. If the government really wanted to do what it claims, which is to make the best of leaving the Union and take all the opportunities, it would be hugely important to maintain visa free travel, allow free movement of workers and try to find actual ways of ensuring that we continue to maintain close ties with our closest neighbours. One essential step would be to say: ‘we are a hugely attractive destination for tourists and international students. Let’s welcome them and accept more international students especially.’ At the moment the Home Office appears to be so reluctant to allow people into the country that the mood music is really discouraging for potential students coming from foreign countries. This further reduces the opportunities for cultural exchange.

So what measures should in your opinion be taken to overcome nationalist or racist tendencies in the EU in general and in the UK in particular?

It is not enough to say that it is illegal to be racist, that it is illegal to spread racial hatred. We need to make it absolutely clear that racism is not socially acceptable. There is a real problem in overcoming the currently established trend of people making abusive comments and feeling that’s acceptable. Looking at Trump, Brexit, the Front National, or other right-wing movements all across Europe, a lot of what is being said is very similar in terms of populist and often anti-immigrant discourse. The internationalist, liberal sections of society are often far less effective in making their perspective understood. They need to be as adept at social media as the populists and bigots to get across a message of openness and tolerance. We have to find a way to make this liberal message relevant to and resonate with those sections of society that feel left behind – and take their problems seriously.

Interview: Donna Doerbeck



Prof. Dr. Julie Smith, University of Cambridge

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