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Is European Nationalism Dead?

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A lot has been written about what appears to be a resurgence in the popularity of nationalist movements across Europe in recent years. Ranging from Artur Mas' Catalan independence movement to the overtly racist black-shirts of Golden Dawn in Greece, this trend is clearly here to stay for the foreseeable future. While it is important not to generalise too much, given how varied the ideologies and goals of these movements are, they are clearly united in one key sense: protest or outright rejection of the status quo.

The suggestion that nationalism is dead or on its way out is an odd one. I recently read an article by Simon Kuper in which he argued that "the nation-state is shrinking to just a flag, some sports teams and a pile of debts". He even suggested that the rise of these movements in Europe is actually a sign of nationalism's demise. The move to an 'ever closer' European Union will ultimately make national identities irrelevant. To some, this might seem a reassuring thought. While comparisons with pre-war Germany and the latter days of Yugoslavia may be possible, ultimately these are isolated groups of angry individuals who will, eventually, calm down and accept the trials and tribulations of the post financial crisis world.

Unfortunately this may not be the case with economies on life support across much of contemporary Europe. Whether or not you are for or against 'austerity', the shrinking of the state or the reorganisation of welfare systems, it is clear to see that people are struggling to understand why this is happening or necessary. It is this dangerous mix of confusion and insecurity that, I think, is the reason for the popularity of protest movements throughout the EU.

In Catalonia, it is argued by separatist movements that independence will mean keeping more tax revenue, allowing the yawning budget deficit to be eliminated faster. Golden Dawn has stepped in to provide services that had hitherto been provided by the Greek state. Meanwhile, UKIP have successfully blended the British population's uncertainty about the future with their lack of understanding of the EU.

As numerous academics have rightly pointed out, nationalism is a modern creation that came with the development of the state only in the past few hundred years. It is one of countless identities that have come and gone throughout human history. I identify myself as a member of my family; various sub-national social groups; English sometimes, British at others. To declare that nationalism is dead is to ignore the complexity of how individuals identify themselves against each other. Right now, at a time of economic insecurity, national identity (ethnic, linguistic or geographic) is a popular construct for individuals to cluster around, when at others it may not.

In terms of what this means for the trajectory of the EU, it's quite interesting to look at who and what these movements are protesting against. While it is clear that the locus of political power now lies in Brussels, where the Commission is attaining ever more power to vet member state budgets and economic policy, it is not EU flags that are being burnt in Athens or Madrid.

Instead it is either Angela Merkel or corrupt, incompetent national governments who are accused of causing economic catastrophe. Even in the UK, where the debate is different to much of the rest of Europe, what is driving UKIP's popularity is anger at the coalition government, not a visceral hatred of all things European.

This is because people, when experiencing insecurity or fear, like to blame things they are familiar with. It's easy for the Greeks to blame Germany or focus their anger on Angela Merkel. She is believed to be personally responsible for inflicting such painful austerity measures. The simmering resentment that Catalans have against the Spanish central government has been around since Franco focused power in Madrid. In Holland, fear of immigrants has been replaced by hostility to Europe, reflected in the changing fortunes of Geert Wilders' 'Party for Freedom', which is now styling itself as the party for eurosceptics. The movements may have different means and different ends, but they emanate from a common factor: loss of faith in the European status quo.

Where this will end, it's impossible to say. But until people stop feeling insecure, I suspect that these movements will continue to erode the popular legitimacy that national institutions and structures have enjoyed for so long.