Why are right-wingers winning elections across Europe? After all, the common denominator that Meloni, Orban or Kaczynski share is an identity-based nationalism of the type “us” (Italians/Hungarians/Polish) versus “them” (the other Europeans and, more generally, the whole world). How can we explain that such a basic message is getting so much traction in what, on paper, still remains a union (albeit an incomplete one), where one would have every interest in dampening rivalries and impulses toward disintegration?
Until a few years ago, one might have thought this is tied to a legitimate jolt of national pride in the face of the expropriation of monetary and political sovereignty. Indeed, it is increasingly obvious that Rome’s economic policy is being decided in Brussels (if not directly in Frankfurt) and that, for the important issues, our foreign policy is dictated by Washington. Thus, the success of an appeal to return political decision-making to “the people” (i.e. the national political forces) would be understandable.
However, the numbers suggest that, after the disappointing outcome of Brexit and the escalation of the war in Ukraine, a return to a model of “small homelands” no longer appears credible, either to politicians or to voters. A list with the explicit name “Italexit” failed to enter Parliament, and the previously popular Matteo Salvini has paid dearly for his (very timid) attempt to disengage from the military line dictated by NATO.
In short, the right that is winning is not the one that opposes taking orders from “foreigners,” but rather the one that undertakes to execute them with great zeal, as Giorgia Meloni has promised to do in order to get Draghi to vouch for her before the European and Atlantic partners. However, if it is a matter of implementing the so-called “Draghi agenda,” why has this task ended up with the one party that has never been part of the Draghi government and which, objectively speaking, is completely new to both pro-Europeanism and Atlanticism?
The question has a different meaning if one addresses it to the masses who are voting for the right, or to the supranational powers-that-be who welcome its success. There is, however, one decisive factor: namely that Europe is the (not just rare, but unique) case of a monetary union that does not include (but rather excludes) a political union legitimized by democratic procedures.
Back in the day, it was believed (and some wanted it to be believed) that the establishment of the single currency was a step toward the construction of a real political union, and until recently, the mirage of such a federative path was still prominent in the rhetoric of the major national leaders, precisely to thwart the advance of self-styled sovereignists.
Now that the call for a return to national sovereignty has lost much of its appeal, it seems clear that the goal of the dominant political forces was, and still is, to maintain the current institutional quagmire indefinitely, going neither forward nor backward.
In the current “interregnum,” finance and large corporations can move capital around with the certainty that all political action will have to stop at national borders. Then, they’re able to exploit inter-state rivalry to get a “special discount” for the best fiscal conditions, the loosest regulations, and the most favorable deals with unions and local political authorities. After all, the only institution that has real power at the continental level – the ECB – is much closer to the interests of the financial powers-that-be than to popular needs such as environmental protection or civil rights, which could hinder its stated goal: to maximize “growth.”
The same pattern is reproduced in foreign policy. Obviously, it’s much more reassuring for the United States to be able to rely on a myriad of small vassals than on one united ally, who would be making sure its interests count just as much as those of its partners. A politically disunited Europe is ideal for any U.S. administration, at least as much as it is so for Putin or Erdogan. Therefore, it remains a fact that the nationalist policy of the right-wingers, determined to block any step toward the construction of continental-level sovereignty, is perfectly congruent with the interest of the “strong powers,” both in the military and in the economic field. If this is the agenda, they are its ideal executors.
On the other hand, their claim that they are also the strongest defenders of the national interest is more than just a trivial slogan. In a Europe that has no projects of its own, and can only mediate between antagonistic national interests, it is logical to expect those interests to be defended with more shrewdness and less scruples by those who don’t care about anything beyond the sacred national self-interestedness. It is no coincidence that the unscrupulous use of the right of veto is the nationalists’ most cherished strategic tool: it paralyzes collective initiative, but ensures greater bargaining power for individual states, and, consequently, stronger support at home.
In the Europe of nationalisms, strictly national interests are indeed well defended. On the other hand, the shared interests are suffering, those that we care about not as Italians, Poles, or Hungarians, but as human beings: the interest in having breathable air, lasting peace, or a dignified life. Such general interests could find political expression only at the continental level. As long as institutional politics remains confined to “nations,” they are instead reduced to moralistic rhetoric, prone to being dismissed as a luxury of the elites.
The point is that while strictly national interests have tended to atrophy under the weight of the many crises of recent years, the interests of general importance are becoming increasingly urgent and dramatic. They give an impulse towards the creation of a progressive alliance, a kind of “European civil society,” which would be able to push them onto the continental political agenda.
The greatest concern of the power structures in recent years has been to prevent this exact process from gaining strength. So far they have succeeded – and this is also an area where the heavy hand of the new nationalists can prove to be a valuable support for the powers-that-be in future emergencies. Unless, in the meantime, the potential (if not the full reality) of a collective subject will emerge that is able to take up the challenge and revive it across the entire continent.
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