Authoritarianism, populism, and nationalism have dominated the headlines in recent years. From India to the United States and across the European continent, this triad threatens the predominant liberal democratic order, both domestically and internationally. All three are closely intertwined. Both nationalists and populists claim ownership over the authentic will of the people, using it to frame their campaigns around overly simplistic narratives that pit “the people” (often ethnically defined natives) against a globalist, out-of-touch elite.
But tropes like the “will of the people” tend be far more narrowly defined than their label implies, clashing with a much broader public perspective and forcing populist and nationalist politicians to adopt authoritarian methods to capture and maintain power. Far-right parties and most populists have traditionally been Euroskeptic, rejecting the European Union and opposing further integration inside its institutions.
Nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism are not new phenomena, but their modern proponents have made inroads across Europe partly because they have adopted a broader civilizational outlook that, ironically, centralizes the importance of European culture.
The new ethnonationalist populists have found two targets: the supposed rootless cosmopolitan elites—represented emblematically by the Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros—and Muslim migrants, whether real or imagined. The two are often merged, as was the case when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban alleged that Soros planned to settle Muslim migrants in Europe and promote the “great replacement,” the far-right conspiracy theory popularized by the French writer Renaud Camus that claims the white Christian population is being systematically replaced by non-Europeans (primarily Muslims).
This narrative lends itself to what the American sociologist Rogers Brubaker calls civilizationalism: The conflict between the self and the other does not fall along national lines but civilizational ones. It is thus no longer just France versus Germany but the Occident (the Judeo-Christian world) against Islamic civilization.
There are two prevailing liberal views of Europe. Moderates want to bring independent European nation-states into a strong, jointly controlled confederation, whereas the more hard-line integrationists seek to strengthen the EU to such a degree that it behaves as a single, unified state. At their core, however, both share European integration as their highest ideal.
Liberal Europeans also share a set of core values, defined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union: “Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” The nationalists turn toward Europeanism shares the notion of a values-based Europe, but instead of emphasizing universal rights, they see it underpinned by distinct notions of civilization, usually defined by race, ethnicity, and religion.
There is a strategic component to nationalists’ European turn. Using Europe helps to make radical demands more acceptable and appear less exclusionary. This is particularly true in Germany, where the open endorsement of nationalist positions has long been controversial due to their association with Nazism. The challenges that have come with Brexit offer another pragmatic argument. Although the referendum result was a major triumph of Euroskeptic populism over EU internationalism, the British government’s mishandling of the negotiations in the withdrawal process that followed highlights the risks of taking that step.
As a result, Frexit, Grexit, and other variants of EU withdrawal have lost popularity. In the June 2019 Eurobarometer poll, no country except Poland had a plurality of citizens report that they felt their country would be better off outside the EU, and according to the EU average, only 32 percent of the population preferred withdrawal to continued EU membership.
Because of those challenges, much of Europe’s far-right has steadily shifted its rhetoric away from railing against the existence of the EU and instead toward arguing to transform it from within. As described above, part of the reason for this shift is a pragmatic reaction to changing political realities. But many nationalists still call for leaving the EU. These calls, at their core, still lead back to a sense of pan-European national identity (often manifested as white nationalism) that is being mobilized against the growing migrant population.
In 2016 and 2017, Europe’s leading far-right parties—including the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the French National Front (renamed National Rally in 2018), the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and other parties spread across the EU—held two meetings in Vienna and the German town of Koblenz to celebrate what they hoped would be the beginning of a so-called European Spring. In the shadow of the Brexit vote and the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the events sought to provide for a pan-European platform for the far-right.
While remaining Euroskeptic, they sought to become not just national Euroskeptics but European Euroskeptics. These gatherings succeeded in bringing together parties that have previously squabbled among each other and feared that their mutual association would taint them in the eyes of their respective electorates. After the European Parliament elections in 2019, the new parliamentary group “Identity and Democracy” replaced the earlier Europe of Nations and Freedom with 73 MEPs, doubling its number.
Political pragmatism dictates ascribing more of an overarching cultural importance to Europe. The ideological core of Europeanism incorporates the national identities and is strongly grounded in a civilizational understanding of Europe as a continent of white Christians with shared histories and cultural values. This understanding necessarily excludes those who are not European by ancestry, and even though variation exists across the continent and the concept itself does not focus solely on immigration, Muslim immigrants are most often identified as the “other” because they are visibly non-European.
It is not the first time nationalists have looked across borders. They have long dreamed of a united Europe. Early nationalists fought against the conservative multinational empires and envisioned a Europe of distinct nation-states. During the emergence of nationalism in the 1830s, the Italian activist Giuseppe Mazzini established Young Europe to create an umbrella organization of nationalist movements and present a coordinated front against the conservative order established at the Congress of Vienna. Mazzini sought a league of independent European nation-states to replace the empires and monarchies of the time.
Those lofty aspirations became difficult to achieve as national movements sometimes found themselves competing for the same territory over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the empires they fought against crumbled and were replaced by new nation-states (or imperial states adopted the nation as their defining ideology), the enemies became the ethnic minorities left inside national territory. But despite a flourishing of pan-European nationalist sentiment at mid-century, the use of nationalism to guide the policies of nation-states inevitably brought them into conflict with one another. This produced the highly charged international climate that defined the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feeding directly into World War I.
The 1930s and 1940s marked the culmination of this change when Adolf Hitler attempted to redraw the map of Europe. Although he found some allies across the continent, his claim to German supremacy and economic exploitation made it difficult for nationalists to justify cooperating with the Nazis.
Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi’s interwar Paneuropa project was the only realistic conservative attempt at European integration. It endorsed European colonialism in Africa and saw European integration as a way to preserve the economic prosperity of European nations against global competition from the United States and the Soviet Union.
After World War II, fascism was widely discredited in Europe (along with its proximate ideologies), yet attempts to revive it across the continent persisted. The notion of a European nation was promoted by the fascist and far-right fringe in Europe, culminating in the establishment of the National Party of Europe in Venice in 1962. Europeanism allowed these movements to unite around a common culture and history as they worked to reverse the continent’s slow Cold War decline. Anti-Bolshevik themes were a central feature of their rhetoric, suggesting anti-communism (represented then by the global east) also played a prominent role in the nationalist turn to Europe.
The groups and individuals who advocated this version of a European nation rejected the nascent European Community because it would merely solidify U.S. influence and the Cold War division of the continent. They argued for different structures that more effectively met their demands for racial, religious, and civilizational homogeneity. These efforts included Britain’s most prominent fascist politician and onetime Hitler admirer, Sir Oswald Mosley; the German Reich Party, dissolved itself in 1965; the Italian Social Movement (MSI); and the Belgian Civic Action Movement.
Despite some overlap in their ultimate objectives, liberal integrationists refused to find common cause with nationalists, and those parties remained on the margins. The European nationalist movement never gained traction among the public, and none of the parties (except the MSI) achieved parliamentary representation. But their efforts still made significant strides toward conceptualizing a European nation with continentwide institutions. Through the Venice declaration, they rejected colonialism on the basis that it would lead to “multi-racial government.” For nationalists during the Cold War, the call for a European nation was conceived against the predominance of the two superpowers, ultimately seeking to reclaim European hegemony.
Intellectually, these efforts found their continuation and link to the present in the New Right in France. This New Right of Alain de Benoist, active in the Research and Study Group for European Civilization think tank, developed an ideological program that promoted a European identity and nationalism, rejecting liberal democracy and ethnic diversity. The ideas of the New Right still inspire contemporary thinkers on the far right.
The notion of pan-European nationalism has since spread beyond the cadre of marginal politics. In late 2014, a protest movement emerged in towns and cities across eastern Germany, eventually ballooning to tens of thousands by 2015. The movement called itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA). As is implied in its name, the movement’s main theme was the rejection of Muslim immigration and Islam at large, underscored by a strong sense of anti-elitism and stamped with authoritarian undertones.
Tellingly, the movement did not invoke Germany, but rather, it used Europe and the threat Islam appeared to pose to its survival as its main source of appeal. This allowed PEGIDA to expand beyond Germany, although it had limited success elsewhere. Although one could claim the reference to Europe was only an attempt by German nationalists to dispel criticism, PEGIDA provided an ideological framework that later far-right nationalists could draw on to advance their nationalistic aims.
The defense of Europe has found a particular resonance in Austria and southeastern Europe, where historic wars against the Ottoman Empire are reinterpreted as a continuous struggle against an Islamic threat. The Austrian far-right only recently discovered the defense against Ottoman rule as an evocative historical narrative, but it has been more prominent elsewhere. In Croatia, nationalist former President Franjo Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Union (once again back in power) often invoked their supposed defense of Europe and Croatia as a protective wall of Christendom.
Similarly, Serb nationalists portrayed the quest for a Greater Serbian nation-state and the ethnic cleansing associated with it during the 1990s as the defense of Europe against Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians. Paramilitary leaders, generals, and politicians often described Bosniaks as “Turks” to emphasize their alienness. But despite the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric and a shared claim to defend Christian Europe from Islam, Croat and Serb nationalists were still engaged in vicious ethnonationalist fighting against each other. This highlights the limitations that nationalist Europeanism poses, because when the interests of the nation clash with those of the civilization, nationalists will necessarily put their interests first.
Far-right nationalist parties have also discovered the Balkans. In Austria, the FPÖ has been at the forefront of rejecting Kosovo’s independence and advocating the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has also cultivated close ties to extreme nationalist parties in Serbia and Bosnia. As a recent Balkan Insight investigation revealed, the German far-right (including the AfD) has also been building ties to both the Croatian and Serbian far-right.
It is this sense of Islamophobia that white nationalist terrorists have used to justify violence. In two of the deadliest white nationalist terrorist attacks in recent memory (the Christchurch mosque shooting that left 51 dead in March and the 2011 Oslo and Utoya killings that left 77 dead), the perpetrators explicitly cited Serb nationalist leaders including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. White nationalist terrorists have crossed traditional national boundaries to advance their broader civilizational aims.
Of course, none of this means that a common purpose trumps the paramount importance of the nation. When France and Germany signed the Aachen Treaty in January, for example, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, accused French President Emmanuel Macron of handing Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. Incidentally, the treaty had nothing to do with that issue, and French control of those once hotly disputed territories is no longer a source of bilateral dispute. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s willingness to revive old nationalist narratives to achieve immediate policy objectives suggests that pan-Europeanism might eventually run its course.
As long as external threats (real and perceived) continue to dominate their worldview, a shared sense of Europeanness will always have appeal among nationalists and populists on the far-right. However, differences over territory, identity, and other policy issues will be significant barriers to full integration, and those will likely create conflicts among nation-states even inside a European framework.
Europeanism has become a core feature of the ideology of the far-right. From the fringes, it has developed a more coherent agenda and created space for greater pan-European cooperation. While nationalist Europeanism does offer an interesting contrast to the liberal internationalist conception of European integration, its notion of civilization is merely a thin veneer for a racially white and homogenous Europe and is thus at its core a combination of racism and nationalism—an ideology that will once again lead Europe to a dead end.