The Pursuit of Knowledge

The Rebirth of Nations

Europeans are standing up for their national identities at the risk of being labeled "extremists" by the Eurocrats.

By From the June 2011 issue

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The True Finn Party in Finland has broken through the left-liberal consensus to take second place in the polls, reminding voters that Finland is not just a geographical area but a country defined by language, culture, and history, a country that has been defended at great cost against the Soviet desire to absorb it and which is now, thanks to the European Union, being robbed of its savings in order to replenish the pockets of Mediterranean kleptocrats. Finns have revealed that they don't like being manipulated by political elites outside the country. They want to show the world that Finland is not just a quaint survival, defined by a weird language and a romantic folklore, but a real and self-governing nation-state, whose resources belong to its citizens, and whose citizens wish to claim their ancestral territory as their own.

A comparable feeling has made itself manifest in France, with growing support for the Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and for Le Pen's dynamic daughter, who is now likely to lead the party to positions of power and influence across the country (see Joseph A. Harriss, p. 54). The Dutch have rallied to the cause of Geert Wilders, whose outspoken attacks on Islam and calls to restrict immigration have brought a new spirit of national defiance to the politics of the Netherlands. Belgium is unable to form a government, on account of the nationalist aspirations of its Flemish majority, while in Italy the Lega Nord is pressing for a redefinition of the Italian settlement, one that will acknowledge the distinction between the law-abiding north and the Mafia-ridden south of the country.

All across Europe the nations are beginning to boil with frustration, at a political straitjacket that prevents them from asserting their ancient rights. The causes of this are many, but two in particular stand out: immigration and the European Union. The two are connected, since it is the EU's non-negotiable insistence on the free movement of labor that has prevented the nation-states from exerting meaningful control over their borders. At a time when unemployment in Britain stands at more than 2 million, more than a million immigrants from Eastern Europe have come to take what jobs there are. It is impossible that such a situation should endure without strong sentiments of national entitlement among the indigenous people, and our governing elites are struggling hard to prevent those sentiments from emerging into the light of day.

Equally provocative, however, has been the debt crisis within the European Union. At a time when the people of Britain are being told that they must face cuts to public services that will cause widespread hardship, they are also being told that taxpayers must contribute 4 billion pounds -- roughly 200 pounds each -- to pay for the extravagance of Portuguese politicians, who have been lining their pockets and robbing their people in the traditional way, and relying on the euro to protect them. The subtle economic arguments with which this move is justified fail to persuade people that they are not being robbed. And it is one appeal of the nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe that they honestly declare that the people are being robbed, in order to subsidize the lifestyle of elites who have no historical connection with them, and that when people are being robbed they have a right to defend themselves.

JUST WHERE ALL this is going it is hard to know. One thing is certain, however: nationalist sentiments are once more prominent in the cultural landscape of Europe. And they are the more prominent for the attempt by the Eurocrats to forbid them. I doubt that this situation was foreseen by those who first set the European process in motion. It seemed reasonable, even imperative, in 1950 to bring the nations of Europe together, in a way that would prevent the wars that had twice almost destroyed the continent. And because conflicts breed radicalism, the new Europe was conceived as a comprehensive plan -- one that would eliminate the sources of European conflict, and place cooperation rather than rivalry at the heart of the continental order.

The architects of the plan, who were for the most part Christian Democrats, had little else in common apart from a belief in European civilization and a distrust of the nation-state. The éminence grise, Jean Monnet, was a transnational bureaucrat, inspired by the vision of a united Europe in which war would be a thing of the past. His close collaborator Walter Hallstein was an academic German technocrat, who believed in international jurisdiction as the natural successor to the laws of the nation-states. Monnet and Hallstein were joined by Altiero Spinelli, a romantic communist who advocated a United States of Europe legitimized by a democratically elected European Parliament. Such people were not isolated enthusiasts, but part of a broad movement among the postwar political class. They chose popular leaders like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, and Alcide De Gasperi as the spokesmen for their ideas, and proposed the European Coal and Steel Community (the Schuman Plan) as their initial goal -- believing that the larger project would acquire legitimacy if it could first be understood and accepted in this circumscribed form. At the same time the long-term goal was kept secret, on the justified understanding that, if the people got wind of it, they would make sure it never happened.

When the first instruments of European cooperation were being devised, the continent was divided by the Iron Curtain, with half of Germany and all of the Slavonic countries under Soviet occupation and fascist regimes installed in Portugal and Spain. France was in constant turmoil, with a Communist Party commanding the support of more than a third of its electorate; the free remnant of Europe was critically dependent upon the Atlantic alliance, and the marks of occupation and defeat were (except in Great Britain and the Iberian peninsula) everywhere apparent. Only radical measures, it seemed, could restore the continent to political and economic health, and those measures must replace the old antagonisms with a new spirit of friendship.

As a result, European integration was conceived in one-dimensional terms, as a process of ever-increasing unity under a centralized structure of command. Each increase in central power was to be matched by a diminution of national power. Every summit, every directive, and every click of the ratchet has since carried within itself this specific equation. The political process in Europe has therefore acquired a direction. It is not a direction that the people of Europe have chosen, and every time they are given the right to vote on it they reject it -- hence everything is done to ensure that they never have the chance to vote on it. The process is moving always toward centralization, top-down control, dictatorship by unelected bureaucrats and judges, cancellation of laws passed by elected parliaments, constitutional treaties framed without any input whatsoever from the people -- in short, the process is moving always toward imperial government. And only one thing stands opposed to this result, and that is the national sentiments of the European people.

For this very reason national sentiments have been demonized. Speak up for Jeanne d'Arc and le pays réel, for the "sceptred isle" and St. George, for Lemmenkäinen's gloomy forests and the "true Finns" who roam in them, and you will be called a fascist, a racist, and an extremist. There is a liturgy of denunciation here that is repeated all across Europe by a ruling elite that trembles in the face of ordinary loyalties. But the fact is that national sentiment is, for most ordinary Europeans, the only motive that will justify sacrifice in the public cause. Insofar as people do not vote to line their own pockets, it is because they also vote to protect a shared identity from the predations of those who do not belong to it, and who are attempting to pillage an inheritance to which they are not entitled.

WHAT WE ARE NOW seeing in Europe is that yesterday's radical visions cannot translate into today's political needs. The imperial project has entered into conflict with the only source of sentiment upon which it could conceivably draw for its legitimacy. The nation-states are not equally stable, equally democratic, equally free, or equally obedient to the rule of law. But they are all that we have. They alone inspire the loyalty and obedience of the European people, and without them there is no way that the machinery of the Union can act. By replacing national accountability with distant bureaucracy, that machinery has left people disarmed and bewildered in the face of the current crisis. The euro, invented and imposed without any proof that the people of the "eurozone" had any desire for it, was immediately understood, by the kleptocrats of the Mediterranean, as a way of enlarging the national debt, and transferring it to the hard-working Germans. And the people of Greece, Spain, and Portugal agreed, since nobody alerted them to the cost -- the national cost -- that will be paid, once the eurozone breaks up, as surely it must.

Now that the day of reckoning is approaching, people all across the continent sense the need to prepare themselves for hard times. In a crisis people "take stock," which means that they retreat to the primary source of their social identity, and prepare to defend it. They do not do this consciously. But they do it nevertheless, and the futile attempt by the comfortable elites to denounce the "extremism" of the people whose inheritance they have stolen merely exacerbates the reaction. But the situation is not a happy one. Not only are there nations like the Flemish and the English that have no nation-state of their own. The half-century of peace and prosperity has fed upon the European cultural inheritance without renewing it. The constitutional treaties and transnational courts of the Eurocrats have made a point of granting no favors to the Christian faith, and the spirit of multiculturalism has ensured that national cultures receive no subsidies either from national governments or from the European Union. A "cult of the minority" has been imposed from above.

This cult is painfully apparent in England, where I am writing. English schools that refuse to celebrate Christmas will nevertheless insist on a day devoted to Diwali and another to Eid; "diversity" is the theme of our official festivals, and the Arts Council of England even refuses to support the English Music Festival, on account of the offensive word English in its title. At the same time, here as elsewhere in Europe, people no longer accept the cult. All across Europe "multiculturalism" is being rejected, both by ordinary people and by many of their elected representatives. For, while multiculturalism has done nothing to reconcile immigrant communities to their new surroundings, it has destroyed the frail remnants of national cultures that survived the Second World War.

This is one reason why people who stand up for their national identity can so easily be made to look like "extremists." You don't look like an extremist if you express your national sentiment in the idiom of a Péguy, an Orwell, a Lampedusa, or a Sibelius. But when you have no national icons besides the flag and the football team you find it difficult to display the most important aspect of national sentiment, which is that it is an invocation of peace, and not a cry of war. That is why culture matters, and why its loss, in times of crisis, is a loss to the whole community, and not just to the educated minority who are aware of the fact. 

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.