European Nationalism Goes Mainstream

Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham
Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham

The specter of patriotism is haunting Europe.

Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May, giving the closing keynote at her Conservative Party’s annual conference, offered her version of Donald Trump’s call at the Republican convention for “Americanism not globalism.” She spoke twice, approvingly, of “revolution” as she described patriotic Britons, “ordinary, working-class people,” saying they have had enough of cosmopolitan ways and want a renewal of the old social contract between state and citizen.

“There is more to life than individualism and self-interest,” she said. “We form families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations. We have a responsibility to one another.” The role of government is “to encourage and nurture those relationships” and to honor the “social contract” that should lead employers to hire locally rather than search for cheaper labor far away. “Too many people in positions of power,” she declared, “behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

The homeward tug of the nation-state is upending European politics. Until very recently, European commentary focused on “populism,” which was defined as counter to establishment politics. May’s speech may mark the moment when the center-right began to tame and direct the energies of populism. The problem is presented as international elites, citizens of the world, and the globalism they serve; the solution is a renewed social contract between state and citizens, one that forces the “privileged few” to reshape capitalism in service of the nation. May’s speech met with some bewildered cries of pain from London’s business sector — it was such a short time ago that London was the headquarters of globalist finance expecting to bestride the world, with only sentimental ties to land and tradition — but as Mrs Thatcher used to say, in a different vein, there is no alternative. The coopting of populism by the established center-right is the only serious political game in town.

The Asian Example

In some ways, Europe is following a path pioneered in Asia. The Asian approach to globalization has generally been a nationalist one, following the example set in the 1960s by Japan and South Korea: export-oriented, state-directed capitalism on behalf of an ethnically homogenous nation, with little or no immigration. After the currency crisis of 1997-8, a brief period of openness to short-term cross-border capital flows also ended. States chose instead a more nationalist monetary policy.

Capital controls, immigration restrictions, and government direction of the economy — not to mention ethno-nationalism — were not meant to be part of a successful approach to globalization. (Neither was national control of the flow of information over the Internet, or “Internet sovereignty,” which is being promoted most prominently by China’s president, Xi Jinping.) Yet all these have been features of Asian globalization, if to varying degrees, and the counter-trends remain weak. China is indeed opening up a little to foreign capital, as is South Korea. Japan is easing a bit on immigration. But from an Asian perspective these are small adjustments to the weakening of globalization, not recognitions of its strength. The fundamentally nationalist and state-led approach to the global economy remains strong.

Whether that can continue is debatable, but for now the success of Asian states in the era of globalization is hard to dispute. Indeed, there is a rapidly hardening view in the West — brought into focus by the economist Branko Milanovic’s celebrated “elephant graph” — that Asia, in particular China, was the only great beneficiary of globalization, along with the one-percenters in the West whose loyalty to their neighbors and kinfolk is now being questioned so vigorously by Prime Minister May. The losers, on this argument, are the Western middle class.

Enemies Within and Without

Nationalism, by definition, seems unlikely to produce solidarity across borders. But continental nationalists celebrate each other’s victories and have hailed Brexit, and Nigel Farage has been stumping for Trump. For now, perhaps, the West’s nationalisms can enjoy a warm solidarity against international elites.

The key thing is agreeing on the enemies. Like Le Pen and Trump, May sounds a note of betrayal: the privileged stand accused of more or less literally selling out their respective nations. If the edges of this argument can be smoothed — and if the terrifying echoes of interwar anti-Semitism can be responsibly stilled — there could be lasting political power here. It at least offers concrete policy alternatives with regard to personal and corporate taxation. Peggy Noonan, best known as Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, has been arguing for a while, in a vein similar to May’s, that the one percent, and the state, need to renew their commitment to look out for what she calls “the unprotected.” This does seem very different from, if not opposite to, the substance of the Reagan presidency, but then it is even more unexpected to hear a Tory prime minister vowing to “put the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people.”

May also mentions the European Union, and for all Europe’s nationalisms, as ever, Brussels is there as a whetstone for the sharpening of resentments. The more interesting development is a reconfiguration of anti-Americanism. May’s reference to “a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism” has been taken to refer to Apple and Facebook. This was one of her examples of the excesses of globalization.

While Silicon Valley and the United States are not the same thing, they have become tightly associated in Europe. The U.S. Department of Justice’s prosecution of Deutsche Bank has brought to the surface a view that the U.S. uses its privileged position in the global economy to wage against its European rivals “economic warfare” (Wirtschaftskrieg), in the phrase of Peter Ramsauer, chair of the German parliament’s economic committee. Markus Ferber, a prominent figure in the center-right CSU party, simply stated that the Deutsche Bank prosecution was U.S. retaliation for the European Commission’s fine on Apple. This sounds odd to American ears, not least because Apple has been in open battle with Washington for some two years now, and in particular with the Department of Justice. But the belief behind it is not limited to the fringe. In Spain you can hear of a guerra de multas (“war of fines”), while in France a parliamentary report recently laid out in detail how the U.S. uses its extra-territorial legal reach to target European enterprises.

Why the U.S. would do this is hard to say. But the anti-American stance, long held on the left, now clearly has some use for the mainstream European center-right as it grapples with the popular opposition to globalization. The U.S. itself, of course, can give as good as it gets when it comes to ascribing enmity to foreigners. The trans-Atlantic alliance, much less any notion of “the West”, has been absent from the presidential campaigns. The chances are growing that come January the new president will awake to face a Europe where nationalism and anti-Americanism are becoming mainstream.

CONVERSATIONS