Why Europe’s Illiberal Nationalisms Must Be Countered: Don’t Blame Only Trump’s Nationalism – OpEd


Donald Trump has faced a fusillade of domestic and international criticism leveled at his attempt to ban citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the United States. But Trump’s US is not the first western state to stigmatize Muslims by imposing such a ban. Slovakia, a member-state of the EU, first banned all Muslim migrants in August 2015. Then, in May 2016, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that Islam had no place in his country.

This declaration was made only a month before Slovakia held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), which highlights equality and respect for human rights among its core values. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights assures legal certainty for equality before the law, non-discrimination, and cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.

Why, then, has there been so little reaction in Europe itself to the Slovak ban, which goes against EU values? Why have Europeans protested widely only against Trump’s ban? Did Slovakia’s ban fail to grab the international headlines because it is not a superpower and is not perceived as one of the world’s most liberal and open countries? No easy answers present themselves.

Across the Atlantic, many Americans oppose Trump because his orders go against the American values of freedom and equality and of judging individuals on their merits. And especially since the 1960s, many Americans have taken pride in lauding their country as a nation of immigrants. No European country takes a similar pride. Although, with its ageing population, Europe needs immigration.

Xenophobia and discrimination against different communities had been reported by the EU and Council of Europe over many years, long before anyone, anywhere had dreamt of President Trump. The chances are that anti-“Other” populist nationalism has been insufficiently challenged by European leaders and professedly liberal political parties or the media.

Why populists should be challenged

For many life can be enriched by contact with people from diverse backgrounds. But many in Europe today dislike diversity – “multiculturalism”, as they contemptuously label it . They also dislike the EU, and migrants, Muslims, refugees, and many “others”, thus exposing political and social rifts within the member-states of a divided EU.

Europe’s liberal values are endangered by populist nationalisms grounded in ideas of ethnic, cultural or religious superiority. Those intolerant nationalisms also go against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which states that all individuals are entailed to freedoms without discrimination on grounds such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, and political opinion, and birth, national or social origin. The list of Europe’s illiberal nationalists is long… France’s Le Pen father and daughter, The Netherlands’s Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland …and more.

In fact, opponents of diversity and the EU may belong to the political left or right of center in their respective countries. “Multiculturalism” and “the EU” have become buzzwords representing protests against a range of social and political issues, including globalization, immigration, identity, social injustice, political disillusion, corruption, cronyism, and the perceived unaccountability of many political and business leaders in Europe’s democracies.

Economics – and globalization – do not explain the prejudice that underlies the xenophobia propagated by Europe’s far-right and some mainstream parties. For one, illiberal nationalisms have gained ground since the 1990s – long before the financial crisis of 2008.

The surprise is that some of Europe’s richest and most stable countries – where everyone has access to a decent liberal education – have seen electoral gains made by “anti-Other” parties over the last few years. They even include the more socially equitable Scandinavian countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

At another level, London is the European city which has borne the brunt of globalization. It is also Europe’s most culturally diverse city, Yet Britons living in London defied EU-phobic populists and voted against Brexit last June. And in May 2016 Londoners elected Sadiq Khan as the first Muslim mayor of a western capital. This was 11 years after Muslim extremists bombed London, creating a wave of Islamophobia. Sadiq Khan is a second-generation Muslim immigrant in Britain; his father was a bus driver and his mother a seamstress. Happily, neither Khan’s religious affiliation nor the social status of his parents dissuaded Londoners from electing him on his merits.

Europe has many phobias

However, Islamophobia – a catch-all term that embraces anything from anti-Islam or anti-Muslim views to discrimination against Muslims – is a fact of life in Europe and the US. It is partly associated with the increased presence of Muslim immigrants and refugees in the US and EU.   Attacks by Muslim terrorists on New York on 9/11 and on some European cities since then have led some in the west to create a stereotype of Islam as the religion of fanatics and terrorists.

But violence is not the monopoly either of Muslims, immigrants or natives. Many years ago Italy suffered terrorist attacks from the extremist Red Brigade. In 2009, Anders Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist hating a motley group comprising, among others, Muslims, the EU, and feminists killed 90 young socialists enjoying a summer camp in Norway.

In fact, Islamophobia is just one of many phobias affecting Europe.

Anti- Semitism is also on the rise in Europe – and its perpetrators may be Muslims or non-Muslims, political individuals or group of varied political hues.

Europe’s Neo-Nazi groups are attracting popular support. Some have entered parliament at national or European levels. The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly has warned that this is not an isolated phenomenon peculiar to some of its member States, but a pan-European problem. Neo-Nazis should be countered, not only to uphold liberal values, but also in the interests of conflict prevention in Europe.

Then there is “anti-East Europeanism”. This card was one of several anti-immigrant cards played by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. For instance, in 2015 he warned that Britain must “say no” to East European workers. He was probably trying to from trying to deflect attention from – and covering up – a poor British education policy which leaves British children less numerate than some foreign ones so that British employers may prefer to employ immigrants who are better educated than British workers.

Anti-Polish sentiment – which I will call “Polophobia” – is strong in Britain. White Poles have been the target of white working class anger. They have also faced hostility from darker British Asian workers – who themselves may have been victims of racism. This is probably because Poles are now 16.5% of the total non-British national population resident in the UK, the largest immigrant group in Britain, the most common non-British nationality.

Prejudice is opinion without facts. For France’s Marine Le Pen, the European Union is a sovietized empire . And last year’s Brexit vote shows that prejudice can become the defining attitude of a mainstream party, even in one of the world’s oldest and strongest democracies. The allegation made by Boris Johnson – now Britain’s Foreign Secretary – that the EU was redolent of Nazi Germany exposed his ignorance of both. But his tosh was backed by several Conservative politicians.

Other mainstream parties and leaders in Europe echo, or line up with, populist parties. In Sweden, for example, the mainstream Moderate (Conservative) party has entered into an electoral alliance to fight next year’s general election.

The anti-EU charges made by some European politicians do not make them defenders of liberalism. Many of them admire the territorial expansionism of the authoritarian Vladimir Putin. They also simultaneously identify with the former empires of their respective countries. For Johnson the real problem is that Britain no longer has its empire: “we are not in charge any more.”

The fact is that empires are always based on war and conquest; they are never democratic and lack legitimacy. Talk of glorifying empires raises the question whether anti-EU, pro-empire leaders expect their countries to march forward in the 21st century by marching backwards – intellectually at least – into the authoritarian states of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Their illiberalism is also illustrated by their denial of the intellectual pluralism that exists within all communities. They wrongly depict communities – as monolithic wholes instead of judging individuals on their merits. In fact people belonging to different communities vote for different parties in all West European countries in different elections – not everyone is “committed” to voting for any single party.

Populist Xenophobia has divided Britain – and it is dividing the EU. Orban’s illiberal Hungarian government, which violates press freedom and judicial independence, has built razor-wire border fences to keep refugees out. Hungary’s act has provoked Luxembourg, one of the founder-members of the European Economic Community (now the EU) into demanding Hungary’s expulsion from the EU. But Germany is against expelling Hungary. Moreover, the EU is disunited on dealing with Brexit.

What can be done? Europe’s leaders should focus on forging a civic nationalisms, based on liberal democratic norms highlighting intellectual and political choice, individual rights and merit. Only this will prevent racist xenophobic parties from fomenting the prejudice which lies at the heart of divisive nationalism – which can only create conflict in a society. For the prejudices held by one group only feed and fatten on the prejudices held by another group.

Trump’s anti- Muslim and ‘America First’ attitudes are not the sole threats to the western alliance. The results of forthcoming elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands will make 2017 a ‘strengthen or break Europe’ year: those results will impact on Europe’s ties with the US and the international liberal order.

The time has come for liberal parities to throw down the gauntlet before intolerant divisive nationalisms with the intent of strengthening liberal civic nationalisms – so that Europe’s democratic peace and stability are maintained.

Anita Inder Singh

Anita Inder Singh, a Swedish citizen, is a Founding Professor of the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. Her books include Democracy, Ethnic Diversity and Security in Post-Communist Europe (Praeger, USA, 2001) ; her Oxford doctoral thesis, The Origins of the Partition of India, 1936-1947 (Oxford University Press [OUP], several editions since 1987, published in a special omnibus comprising the four classic works on the Partition by OUP (2002, paperback: 2004) The Limits of British Influence: South Asia and the Anglo-American Relationship 1947-56 (Macmillan, London, and St Martin's Press, New York, 1993), and The United States, South Asia and the Global Anti-Terrorist Coalition (2006). Her articles have been published in The World Today, (many on nationalism, security and democracy were published in this magazine) International Affairs, (both Chatham House, London) the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Nikkei Asian Review and The Diplomat.

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