The Other Side of the Coin: Populism, Nationalism, and the European Union

By Rosenberger, Sieglinde | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Other Side of the Coin: Populism, Nationalism, and the European Union


Rosenberger, Sieglinde, Harvard International Review


In studying the evolution of the European Union (EU), scholars and politicians alike have focused on its institutional side, or what Jurgen Habermas calls the "postnational constellation." They examine the European Union as a supranational body--its integration, enlargement, and governance. But there is another side to the EU coin: the member states themselves. Recent studies have therefore paid more attention to creating a more "emotional narrative" of the European identity.

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Member States in Transition

While the EU integration process has progressed rapidly, individual member states have undergone uncertain internal transitions. Each member remains a distinct nation-state, especially with respect to the identification of its citizens and the conception of legitimate political actors on the national level. Conversely, member states have lost several roles and functions within the framework of national politics. Common decision-making in domestic and legal affairs and the increase in economic ties that accompany integration have led to the weakening of national sovereignty.

In this volatile context, populist parties and their often charismatic leaders have emerged as political actors and entered the realm of competitive politics in Europe. Since the 1990s, relatively new populist parties have achieved double-digit percentages of the vote in general elections. In the last several years, some of these parties have established themselves in government and altered the agenda of center-right parties in Europe as a whole.

Why should such political parties be analyzed within the framework of the European Union? One answer is that they have returned political debates to the national realm and set back core elements of liberal democracy. Beginning with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the European project has been depicted as an institution to curb nationalism and avoid the perils of future wars. However, counter-references to nation-based identities are gaining importance despite the wave of economic and political integration. The process of supranationalization in the decision-making process has been accompanied by political actors striving for a re-nationalization of attitudes.

Right-wing Populist Parties

Issues related to national identity are among the top campaign issues for right-wing populist leaders across Europe, such as Jorg Haider of Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen of France, Pia Kjaersgaard of Denmark, Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands, Umberto Bossi of Italy, Christoph Blocher of Switzerland, and Filip Dewinter of Belgium. In particular, the topic most closely linked to the construction of national identities is immigration. Populist parties claim to preserve cultural identity (most importantly, national identity) in order to protect their constituents from external cultural threats that are ascribed to "foreigners." The populist strategy is mainly concerned with addressing fears and resentments by offering scapegoats. They paint a gloomy picture of a multicultural future, and the solutions that are offered to solve different societal problems may be described as a grab bag of policies intended to maintain a pure cultural identity.

The theoretical concept behind national identity frequently rests on the idea of a homogenous group traceable in history, coupled with modern challenges such as immigration. National identities have often been created by the well-documented use of the contrast between "us" and "them." In compliance with this model, populist politicians frame politics in the oversimplified formula of an "us versus them" and attempt to draw a sharp line distinguishing cultures.

To build an "us" as a nation-based group, one must first identify which groups are targeted by populist parties as "them." The use of slogans such as "eigen volk eerst" (own people first), "Osterreich zuerst" (Austria first), and "les francais d'abord" (the French first) in populist rhetoric points to national cultural supremacy that tries to crack down on immigrant workers, refugees, and minorities. …

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The Other Side of the Coin: Populism, Nationalism, and the European Union
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