Skip to main content

This is the Age of Identity. In the US, conflicting visions of Americana jostle with one another. The desire to ‘Make America Great Again’ can be seen as the claiming of an identity, harkening back to an undefined time perceived as better and more American.

In Britain, Brexit has given rise to a similar hypothetical nostalgia, which is ultimately founded in identity. This was particularly clear in the debates at the time of the EU referendum.

In the wider sociocultural sphere, in which identity politics reigns supreme, disparate elements attempt to define themselves with regard to their group identity, for example gender-related, or of sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, third generation immigrants, and others, are being seduced by moralreligious identities that appear to grant them purpose and meaning; some then leave Europe to become terrorist fighters.

The rise of nationalistic movements within Europe fits squarely within this very human behavioural pattern. Italy’s Salvini has mentioned a desire to return to Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots, while Poland’s Morawiecki warned that without resistance, “Europe will no longer belong to Europeans.”

We hear in the media that, following a long period of integration, we are now witnessing a return to instinctive national sentiments, that the ‘End of History’, as Professor Francis Fukuyma famously wrote, is over, and that these sentiments occur because people are afraid, and because they are seduced by the strongman talk of security which the radical populist offers.

Maybe nationalism is a crisis of identity. Maybe the reaction to change and modernity, globalism and multiculturalism, epitomised in the feeling of ‘leftbehindness’, has led people to a narrow reactionary focus on nation, history, and past, tinged with fear of the other. Maybe this is a brutish sectarian urge which can be understood merely by analysing the latent racism and xenophobia of its proponents. Without denying the clear reality of the globalisation pushback, I believe such a view is neither sensible nor justified.

For not only is the search for identity a human trait – from the tribal fighter to the keyboard warrior – but it is also a positive trait. It is how we form relationships and care about groups wider than our own immediate circle. Besides which, the pure global citizen, unmarred by any form of national, religious or social identity, entirely adrift, un-anchored in community, is a character that does not exist, and I wonder whether he or she would have any opinions, morals, or beliefs if they did.

Not enough has been made of the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Yet, the patriot is but a nationalist who feels heard and unafraid; the nationalist, thus, an unheard frightened patriot. Which brings us to populism. The populist offers radical solutions, capitalising on fear, and exploiting the patriotic sentiment, but above all exploiting the vacuum left by centre-ground politics – thereby making the nationalist feel heard.

The more concerned voices inveigh against nationalism, equating it with racism and ignorance, the more it will intensify. Those being seduced by the populists will find themselves ever more pushed away by the political centre, and pushed together. And few things strengthen in-group identity more than out-group rejection.

Is this to say that the rise of right-wing radicalism and anti-European sentiment is to be welcomed? No. No more than left-wing radicalism, or religious radicalism. The seductive and ruthless simplicity of radicalism is rarely the answer to a multifaceted world full of individuals with differing viewpoints and experiences. History has shown us this, both on the political left and the right, both in the secular and religious domain.

The EU needs reform. And this reform cannot overlook nation-states: they provide democratic legitimacy and identification. The EU, despite flag, anthem and constitution, has not quite succeeded to offer a sense of common identity. The ideology of ever-closer union and vilification of nationalism has alienated many in Europe, and made them wary of the EU.

So. how should Europe respond to the rise in nationalism?

With intelligent analysis and an open attitude for reform. With tolerance for diversity of all kinds – including of opinion. A simple democratic remedy: listening rationally to the concerns of the people, and acting dispassionately upon them.

Each European state has to address the rise in nationalism individually, with actions ranging from reinstating national service, to addressing inequality, to increasing the political education of the citizenry, to opening the debate on migration and border control. But above all with a change in attitude towards those that feel unheard.

Turn the nationalist into a bogeyman and he will vote for a radical populist. Be willing to review one’s own actions and listen to their concerns, and they will vote for the political centre. And that makes for a better Europe for all.

Felix Dane is the Director of Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) UK and Ireland. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.