To Be Absolutely Frank

Nationalism Right, Left, and Center

Jörg Haider is back in the news, in today's ''New York Times'' no less. And what is Austria's best-known (living) right-wing demagogue up to now? More praise for the Third Reich, perhaps?

By 2.7.02

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Jörg Haider is back in the news, in today's New York Times no less. And what is Austria's best-known (living) right-wing demagogue up to now? More praise for the Third Reich, perhaps? More immigrant bashing? No, this time he's inflaming passions by crying out against … nuclear power.

That puts Haider in the same camp as Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda, and like-minded millions who all but eradicated the energy source from the U.S. in the 1970s. Does that mean the "post-Nazi" (as one of Haider's enemies calls him) has learned the error of his jackbooted ways? Did those months of diplomatic sanctions the European Union imposed on Austria to protest his party's inclusion in the nation's government chasten Haider after all?

Nothing of the sort. Fascism and environmentalism are hardly a new mix: Hitler championed many of the policies identified with today's Green left. In this case, however, Haider's no-nukism serves his long-standing opposition to E.U. expansion. He wants to keep the Czech Republic out of the E.U. unless it shuts a nuclear power plant on the border with Austria. Conveniently enough, that would stop lower-paid Czech workers from moving in to compete with Haider's countrymen. A petition promoting his position has gathered nearly a million signatures, or 15 percent of Austria's voters.

This is hardly the first time that European rightists and leftists have come together to challenge E.U. policies. It's not even the first time this week. Last Tuesday the Italian government invoked a treaty to stop the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive branch, from ending Italy's tax breaks on fuel for its nation's truck drivers. The center-right Berlusconi government, which is emerging as the leading voice of dissent from the dogma of unquestioned European integration, was joined in the move by the Socialist-led governments of France and the Netherlands.

On the same day, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, another Socialist, complained that an E.C. proposal to liberalize the automobile market would mean "huge competitive disadvantages" for his nation's car makers. This came four days after Schroeder insinuated that the E.C. was out to bring about his defeat by a conservative in next September's elections. "There must be other reasons, and not economic ones," for the E.C.'s warning about Germany's growing budget deficits, the Chancellor claimed.

It seems that the E.U., until recently the guardian of an enlightened internationalism against the forces of reactionary nationalism, is suddenly the instrument of a resurgent European right wing. Of course that's preposterous. This isn't about right or left; or rather, it's about both and everything in between.

European politicians of all stripes naturally seek to please their voters by lowering taxes, or raising pensions, or protecting national industries, or maintaining costly social services. Sometimes they try to do all at once. But E.U. agreements and regulations hinder national governments from carrying out such policies.

Though external restrictions can serve as a convenient excuse for unpopular belt-tightening ("Brussels made us do it!"), citizens frustrated with a remote and undemocratic supranational bureaucracy will sooner or later turn to leaders who stand up for them -- whether their cause is preserving the environment, the welfare state, or the ethnic status quo. The advent of the euro, which has lost over a quarter of its value since its introduction as a virtual currency three years ago, will hardly discourage any of this. Not to speak of intangibles such as patriotism and linguistic affinity that enhance the authority of national leaders.

The farther Europe goes along the path to unity, the clearer it becomes that its nation-states are here to stay. It's on their ground that left and right will continue to compete -- when they're not joining forces to resist the E.U.

(Francis X. Rocca is a writer in Vicenza, Italy.)

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Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.