European Crisis Fertile Ground for Nationalist Parties

8 MINS READNov 7, 2011 | 12:50 GMT
In the minds of many nationalist parties in Europe, the ongoing economic crisis has corroborated much of that which they advocate: that immigration policies should be reformed, that the European integration process should be reverted, and that their national identities should be protected. That those beliefs are difficult to impose in the present stage of European integration notwithstanding, Europe has long been wary of nationalist parties, and many countries have implemented electoral systems that deliberately marginalize those groups. Nevertheless, such groups will be important to watch as the European crisis plays out.
The ongoing economic crisis in Europe has brought the European financial system under much scrutiny. By now, perceived flaws in that system have been well-documented, and much of that documentation — understandably — has focused on economic and financial issues. But economics and finance do not exist in a vacuum; in Europe and elsewhere, one cannot separate the economic from the political, and indeed the economic crisis is producing notable political developments on the European continent. The role of nationalist political parties, in which the crisis has endowed a sense of validation, is one such development. Episodes of economic instability tend to engender nationalist discourse. But at the present stage of European integration, it may be difficult for any European government to put into legislation many of the sentiments espoused by nationalist parties, such as immigration reform, opposition to economic integration or the protection of what they see as their national culture. However, this will not stop them from continuing to voice their concerns — either through representation in a country's parliament or through street-level demonstrations — even though mechanisms are in place to marginalize these groups. Accordingly, as the European economic crisis continues to fuel nationalist ideology, STRATFOR expects the tension created by globalization and its social and cultural effects to be an important element in the European political scene in the coming years.

Nationalism: A European Tradition

The idea of nationalism in Europe is nothing new. It is a natural byproduct of the Continent's geography, which produced pockets of communities that for centuries were isolated from one another. In these disparate communities a deep sense of belonging to their native land was instilled, as was an equally deep distrust of outsiders. Distrust of nationalist political parties has been a constant factor in the last 200 years, but after World War II, which showed the Europeans how corrosive such parties could be, Europe began to institutionalize a more continental sense of belonging, culminating in the creation of the European Union. In return for a collective identity, the European Union offered prosperity and the promise of peace. When Europe was rich and safe, this bargain resonated among Europeans. But the worsening economic crisis has weakened the foundation upon which this agreement rests. In the context of the 21st century, nationalism could be thought of as a set of ideas that seek to defend a country's "national identity" against the threats of encroaching forces brought on by globalization. For many Europeans, this manifests itself in at least two forms: immigration and the loss of national sovereignty to the institutions of the European Union.

Protecting 'National Identity'

As a countermeasure to these perceived threats, several parties across Europe have attempted to protect their national identities. In Western Europe, the main concern regarding immigration is Islam. Most nationalist parties highlight the Continent's origins in Christianity and its supposed incompatibility with Muslim customs and beliefs. A number of events showcase this resilience to fully embrace Islam, including the rejection of the construction of minarets in Switzerland and the rise of anti-Islamic rhetoric under Pim Fortuyn — now deceased — and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. (click here to enlarge image) In Eastern Europe, the main concern is the presence of minority populations, in particular the Roma, or gypsies. Hungary's Jobbik party has warned against the growth of "gypsy crime" in the country, and the Magyar Garda, Jobbik's paramilitary wing, has conducted violent demonstrations while wearing military-style uniforms and World War II fascist regalia. Such parties frequently criticize what they believe to be the abuse of the welfare state by minorities. The Sweden Democrats, for example, have claimed that the welfare state is at risk of disappearing due to an influx of immigrants, while the National Union Attack of Bulgaria criticizes the country's ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Turks and the Pomaks, or Bulgarian Muslims, for allegedly being too privileged. The rejection of the European Union, on the other hand, has taken several forms. As a general rule, all the parties believe their countries surrender too much sovereignty to the bloc. Organizations such as the Freedom Party of Austria and the Danish People's Party have demonstrated a long history of opposing EU accession and expansion, while the Swiss People's Party wants to keep Switzerland out of the bloc altogether. Other parties accept EU membership but refuse to expand it. For these parties, the incorporation of Turkey, a Muslim country of more than 70 million people, is a major point of contention. (click here to enlarge image) Virtually every European country allows nationalist parties to participate in its domestic politics to some degree, but some countries have longer traditions of supporting nationalist groups than others. Switzerland is one such country; in the past three federal elections, nationalist parties have averaged 28 percent of the popular vote, with the Swiss People's Party as the leading party. Following Switzerland is France, where the National Front earned around 14 percent of the country's vote in the past three presidential elections. The Netherlands, Austria and Denmark show similar figures at around 12-13 percent, while Finland has experienced growth in the support of nationalist parties in the past two elections. Elsewhere in Europe, countries such as Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria have strong enough support for these parties to achieve a modest presence in the legislative branch.

Impediments to Representation

However, popular support does not always equate to access to national parliament. The end of World War II — and later, the collapse of the Soviet Union — provided European countries with the opportunity to redesign some aspects of their political systems. This yielded electoral systems that seek to prevent extremist parties from coming to power, including mechanisms to raise electoral thresholds for parliamentary accession and multiple rounds of voting. Most European countries have instituted a system of proportional representation in parliament, where the percentage of the popular vote a party receives determines the percentage of seats it will have in parliament, provided it wins more than a set minimum threshold. Countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain have low electoral thresholds — under 3 percent — meaning it is relatively easy to gain seats in those parliaments. Other countries, such as Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, have higher thresholds of more than 5 percent. (click here to enlarge image) The parliaments of Britain and France are particularly difficult for small parties to access. In these systems, seats are not allocated on a proportional basis; rather, they are given to candidates who win a majority in single-member districts. In addition, France has a two-round system, which filters out smaller parties These two systems bear notable consequences. The French National Front exceeded 15 percent of the popular vote in 1995 and 2002. This would ensure a sizable presence in the parliament of almost any other European country; in France, the party has no representation in parliament. Likewise, in Britain, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) is a relatively small entity, but the 3.1 percent of votes that it received in the 2010 elections would have given it some seats in Finland or Portugal. UKIP has no representation in the British Parliament. Low thresholds could be seen as risky because they allow fringe parties, including nationalists, to access power. At the same time they force the mainstream parties to adjust their policies to attract votes away from the smaller groups, so the very issues that make nationalist groups popular tend to be absorbed into the mainstream. On the other hand, the consequences of the agenda of nationalist parties could transcend the borders of a country and generate friction both with neighbors and with the EU bureaucracy. In July, Denmark threatened to establish new border controls to allegedly prevent "trans-border crime." To a large extent, this decision was made under pressure from the Danish People's Party — not a member of the ruling coalition but a significant supporting group in the parliament. The different level of popular support that these parties have in each country, and the particular characteristics of each electoral system, makes it difficult to predict whether nationalist parties will become more prominent fixtures in European politics as the economic crisis plays out. Nevertheless, the fact remains: Tensions created by globalization, and the way in which nationalist parties continue to react to those tensions, will be important to monitor as they affect the European political landscape.

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