In France the Front National and in Italy the xenophobic Lega Nord got over 12 % at the recent regional elections. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands and Hungary are likely to confirm further inroads for right-wing populists and last year’s European election strengthened populist parties in many countries. However, their success is not only at the ballot box. Right-wing ideologies are poisoning European politics, and undermine peace and prosperity. Remember Nicolas Sarkozy declaring: ‘It is justifiable if a Renault factory is built in India so that Renault cars may be sold to the Indians, but it is not justifiable if a factory of a certain producer is built in the Czech Republic and its cars are sold in France’? After losing to LePen, his government, the government of the country that invented human rights, now wants to prohibit the freedom of religious practice for Muslim women. In the UK, wildcat strikes demanded last year: ‘British jobs for British workers’. The latest calamity is Germany. Since the national-liberal FDP joined her government, Angela Merkel has replaced European solidarity by an aggressive German taxpayer-first approach that is damaging all Europeans regardless of whether they live outside or inside Germany.
What all these examples have in common is a new form of chauvinism. Ravenscroft has described chauvinism as ‘a bias in favour of the familiar’. Dictionaries define it as ‘prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group, or kind’ or ‘a blind belief in national superiority’. Hannah Arendt observed: ‘Chauvinism is an almost natural product of the national concept insofar as it springs directly from the old idea of the ‘national mission.’ … (A) nation’s mission might be interpreted precisely as bringing its light to other, less fortunate peoples that, for whatever reason, have miraculously been left by history without a national mission.’ Who follows the debate in Germany about Greek deficits and monetary stability cannot help but thinking that there is a blind belief in a national mission, coupled with a bias in favour of the familiar.
Chauvinism is dangerous, because it prevents rational political decisions in favour of citizens’ long-term interests. The wisdom of the crowd, to which populists appeal, is a feeling of belonging to a community, which has always done things in the familiar way. When the world changes, however, and new solutions are needed, the bias in favour of the familiar becomes a trap that prevents moving to a better world.
There is no doubt that the world is changing radically. The global population is growing from today’s 6 billion to over 9 billion in the next generation and this development puts enormous pressures on natural resources and the sustainability of the planet. Climate change is only one aspect of this transformation. Growing conflicts over the distribution of resources and potentially massive migration of disadvantaged populations are another. Falling living standards and rising poverty are a third. No wonder that people are disturbed and seek comfort from the familiar.
Industrialisation in the 19th century generated a first wave of globalisation, but it needed the nation state to implement the necessary social and political changes. Socialists realised that they had to conquer the state in order to correct the misery caused by unfettered markets. Social democrats learned that only a democratic state could ensure that people got what they needed and wanted. Today, we go through a second wave of globalisation, but the nation state is too small to handle and regulate the global challenges we face, especially in Europe where no single country represents more than one percent of world population. The nation state can no longer protect its people. Forget the glory of the past. Europe is the future.
This is what new chauvinists do not understand. When Chancellor Merkel proposes that one should exclude a member state from the Euro Area that does not comply with the fiscal budget rules, largely defined and imposed by the German mission for stability and purity, she may say something that reassures her public opinion. Yet, she undermines the very foundation on which German prosperity is built. Without the single market and the stability of a large Euro Area, the German model of a social market economy would collapse. Sarkozy’s protectionism damages French citizens by lowering economic growth and the purchasing power of wages. Go-alone policies have not protected British workers against the crisis – to the contrary, they made things worse. Fact is: without solidarity there is no lasting peace, neither within nor between nations.
Europe’s social democrats must face up to the challenge. Some have thought they could win with chauvinist discourses of their own. Ségolène Royal wanted a French flag in every household, New Labour drew lines in the sand against Europe, and Gerhard Schröder defined German interests in opposition to neighbours, as if Germans were not Europeans as well. These leaders have failed. LePen is still there, the UK Independence Party became stronger than Labour, Germany is governed by nationalist-liberal neo-cons.
There is a different way. Sigmar Gabriel has made the point: the political centre in society is not given, but conquered by becoming the ‘sovereign of interpretation’ (Deutungshoheit). The first priority for European social democrats must be the struggle against the chauvinistic interpretation of the interests of European citizens.