'Old World' demons are stirring again

'Old World' demons are stirring again
© DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Distracted by the high drama of impeachment, Americans may not be following European political developments very closely. It’s time to tune in, though, because “Old World” demons are stirring again.

In Spain’s recent election, the anti-immigrant Vox party scored dramatic gains, more than doubling its seats in the national legislature. This caught everyone’s attention, because the tidal surge of illiberal nationalism rolling across other parts of Europe until now had bypassed Spain.

Just as Donald Trump dug up ideas long thought to have been dead and buried in this country – nativism, protectionism, “America First” isolationism – the rhetoric and political demands of Europe’s extreme right contain disturbing echoes of the virulent nationalism that swept the continent during the 1920s and 1930s and plunged the world into history’s bloodiest war.

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The populist revolt is realigning the continent’s politics around new fault lines: City versus countryside, working class versus highly educated elites, “sovereignists” versus “globalists.” This has come at the expense of the center-left and center-right parties that have long dominated politics but now scramble to stop hemorrhaging voters to upstart populist parties.

Of course, Europe’s firewalls against political extremism are much sturdier today than back then. Fascism and communism are spent ideological forces. The European Union constrains traditional ethno-nationalist rivalries and creates strong incentives for economic and political cooperation.

But what’s dangerous is the radical right’s disdain for the liberal consensus on which the transatlantic community has been built, as well as its penchant for corruption and strongman rule. After a long stretch of peace and prosperity, Europe is again playing with fire.

Its chief pyromaniac is Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Although his political career began on the left as the Cold War ended, Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis seems to have pushed him far to the right.

Now Orban is a strident xenophobe who links migrants to terrorism and actually has built border walls to keep them out. He blasts European elites for embracing “multiculturalism” rather than defending “Christian Europe” against “Islamization.” A fan of Russian autocrat Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinSenate confirms Trump's Russia ambassador Trump is right to shake up NATO Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE, Orban is consolidating power at home while exhorting Europeans to follow him in adopting a new model of “illiberal democracy.” Not coincidentally, Russia-style cronyism and corruption are becoming rife in Hungary. 

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Rightwing nationalists also have come to power in Poland and the Czech Republic, giving former Soviet bloc countries the dubious distinction of leading Europe’s rupture with liberal democracy. Partly this reflects a “demographic panic” in ethnically homogenous East and Central Europe, where political leaders fear out-migration and population loss more than the trickle of newcomers they’ve let in from the Near East and Africa.

In Western Europe, nationalists have exploited public worries that immigrants are diluting “national identity” and diverting social welfare benefits from natives to newcomers. Such sentiments were instrumental to the stunning Brexit vote in 2016; to making nationalists the main opposition party in France; and, to rightwing parties coming to power in Italy and Austria. Even in sober, conservative Germany, where the mainstream Christian Democrats and Social Democrats still hold sway, the ultra-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has become the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. 

The nationalist right is also entrenching itself in the European Union, having won between a quarter and a third of the seats in the European Parliament in last May’s elections. This development bodes ill for European and transatlantic unity. The EU was conceived after World War II as the antidote to nationalist rivalries and irredentism, a mechanism for subsuming separate ethnic and cultural identities within an overarching framework of common European values and institutions. Not only has it kept the peace, the EU has joined the United States as a second bulwark of liberal democracy in the world.

Could the rebirth of ethno-linguistic nationalism, rooted in the anti-liberal, volkisch spirit of the 19th century Counter-Enlightenment, bring the European project to a juddering halt?

Many political observers I spoke with on a recent trip to three European capitals took a more sanguine view. They pointed out that more progressive, pro-Europe parties – especially Liberals (in European terms, pro-market parties) and Greens also made impressive gains, offsetting eroding voter support for traditional conservative and social democratic parties. What’s more, some nationalist parties – notably France’s National Rally and Italy’s Lega – are disavowing Euroskepticism in a bid to broaden their electoral appeal at home. While everyone in Europe loves to bash meddlesome bureaucrats in Brussels, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for following Britain out of the union.

Still, the anti-establishment revolt and resulting political fragmentation clearly have pushed Europe’s center of gravity to the right. Britain’s Conservatives under Prime Minister Boris Johnson have migrated from skepticism to a full-throated embrace of Brexit. And the Tories are hardly the only center-right party in Europe trying to coopt nationalism theses to stanch defections by working-class voters. 

This suggests that the defense of liberal democracy and resistance to the neo-nationalists’ autocratic tendencies will have to come from the center-left. That’s a problem, because support for mainstream progressivism has collapsed across much of Europe. Only in a few places – such as Denmark and Greece – are social democratic parties in power, though some are part of governing coalitions in Sweden, Germany and Spain.

The leader with the clearest progressive vision for Europe’s future is French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronTrump is right to shake up NATO The problems plaguing NATO France, Brazilian states to announce international effort to fight Amazon fires MORE. Although thrown off stride by a spontaneous popular revolt against his call for higher taxes on diesel fuel (the Gillets Jaunes movement), Macron is trying to rally support for deepening economic integration and building up a European defense force. He also dangles prospects of a “sovereign Europe” able to hold its own with the United States and China as an alternative to populist demands for more nation-state sovereignty. 

Whose vision will prevail, Macron’s or Orban’s? Progressive forces in Europe are demoralized, and the nationalists clearly have momentum. If this trend continues, Europe could find itself backsliding toward historical ethnic and cultural antagonisms that bred the kind of conflicts we last saw during the breakup of Yugoslavia. That in turn could erode economic trust and cooperation across the common market and undermine the whole edifice of transnational institutions that have upheld liberal values and made modern Europe more than a fractious collection of mid-sized to small countries.  

What’s America’s stake in all this? For one thing, if Europe starts to crack up, that will likely reinforce the isolationist instincts of U.S. nationalists like President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE, who chafe under the costs and political constraints imposed by the transatlantic alliance. An open, free and prosperous Europe also is one of America’s great foreign policy achievements and strategic assets. Most Americans don’t want to go it alone in the world.

Can Americans do anything to change Europe’s present political trajectory? Not so long as Trump is president. But by rejecting his deeply divisive brand of populist nationalism – either via impeachment or defeat in next year’s presidential election – U.S. voters could send a message that would reverberate powerfully across the Atlantic.  

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).