In recent years Europe has faced some of its most difficult challenges since 1945. An enduring economic crisis that has led to tensions between EU member states is tied up with an unpopular austerity-led vision of the continent promoted by Germany. But the refugee crisis is shuffling the cards, and even Berlin isn’t immune from the outcomes of these social and economic phenomena.
In the early 2000s, intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas were suggesting the creation of a postnational, cosmopolitan union of Europeans as a response to a globalised, deregulated, and market-driven world. Today a very different argument is taking hold – one that seeks a return to nation-states and closed borders. After the latest terrorist action in Germany, where 12 people died at a Christmas market, this cry is going to become even louder.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of welcoming refugees has been attracting criticism for a long time now – including from some within her own centre-right party. Frauke Petry, the leader of the far-right and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD), has called for an immediate end to “political correctness” and for the promotion of Christian values. Comments like this show how these extreme hard-liners are challenging Europe’s core values and the stability of the very framework of the European Union.
Almost no corner of Europe can presently escape this trend. After the attack in Berlin, Marine Le Pen, leader of the most powerful European far-right movement, the Front National, demanded the re-establishment of national borders and called for “the immediate ending of relocation of migrants in [France’s] towns and villages.” Matteo Salvini – the leader of Italy’s right-wing Lega Nord – criticized Merkel’s intention to keep Germany’s open-border policy, saying that “she would be on trial for high treason if we were in times of war.”
Unfortunately, this is the level of public and political debates in some parts of Europe now. Noting this, the New York Times highlighted how “with each new attack, whether on a Christmas market or a mosque, the challenge to Europe to defend tolerance, inclusion, equality, and reason grows more daunting. If Europe is to survive as a beacon of democratic hope in a world rent by violent divisions, it must not cede those values now.”
These type of “anti” stances are rapidly growing, while rightist nationalist and anti-immigrant movements are also on the rise because of the peculiar political and economic era we are living in. In such fluid times, however, it’s hard to predict what may happen next. There are fears that the AfD may threaten Angela Merkel at a national level, or that Marine Le Pen could become the next French president. After the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president there is a feeling that others with similar ideals could also win unexpectedly in the West. But the defeat of right-wing parties in European countries such as Austria show that this is by no means certain.
Liberals and progressives across the continent should instead consider another possibility – that the ongoing appeal of nationalism will push moderates in the EU further to the right. There are already signs that centrist parties are adopting a stricter line on immigration and national identity. Although there is no immediate solution to all this, there are still ways to push back.
Mainstream parties could challenge the far right’s attempts to monopolise Christianity and Europe’s core values – citizens should be reminded that the former does not have a narrow or nationalist approach toward tolerance and egalitarianism. Moreover, the German political leadership might start working on a different image for the European Union.
Postwar Europe has been long characterised by cosmopolitanism and solidarity – recently too easily replaced by monetary policies, budget controls, and fiscal compacts. It is now all too evident that economic policy alone cannot help European countries solve all their problems. Future generations must emphasize the importance of shared culture and education if Europe is to resist the rise of intolerance and fear.
Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of “Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).