Rafael Behr writes in today’s Guardian that right-wing ‘populism’ is threatening the ‘liberal dream’ of the EU.
Behr’s article is striking in the accuracy of his observations and misguidedness of the conclusions he draws from those observations. One paragraph in particular stood out:
The case for keeping Britain in Europe has always been hampered by its reliance on abstract liberalism and historical romanticism: extolling openness and continental engagement as emblems of a modern, self-confident nation; recalling the founding purpose of the EU as the elimination of nationalism by blurring borders; rejecting Euroscepticism as a form of reactionary cultural protectionism, coloured at the fringes by outright xenophobia. Those were never easy arguments to configure as campaign themes with mass appeal. But what pro-Europeans now confront is something altogether more challenging, not just to the practical pursuit of their cause but to its very premise. There is still a liberal case for integration with the rest of Europe, but it gets progressively harder to make when so many countries in the rest of Europe seem to be turning their backs on liberalism.
So, then, there is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘blurring borders’ in the interests of ‘eliminating nationalism’ – even though he concedes that the average thicko is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect. The only problem, he concludes, is that blurring borders has become rather less appealing now that it means trying to integrate with all those nasty racists – sorry, nationalists – running rampant throughout the EU.
Indeed the entire article radiates the fundamental assumption that nationalism is, ipso facto, a Bad Thing. But this assumption, rooted in Europe’s decades-long post-WWII trauma fugue, has gone unchallenged for too long. Certainly history shows us nationalism can have some ugly consequences; but in large part the revived enthusiasm of Europe’s’little people’ for nationalism is not driven by a desire to find scapegoats, justify pogroms or generally hate on ‘bloody foreigners’. Rather, it is fuelled at base by the instinctive realisation that without some form of nationalism, there can be no nation-state; without the nation-state there can be no democracy; and without democracy, the little people get shafted, again and again.
The liberal dream of destroying nationalism has, in effect, worked to undermine the main bulwark ordinary people have had against the relentless march of globalisation: the sense that, by joining their voices as ‘The People’ to whom a government is accountable, they could ensure their interests remained in consideration. But one of the most significant trends of the twentieth century has seen national sovereignty inexorably nibbled away, whether by international regulatory bodies, trade agreements or the move towards EU federalisation. And with each reduction in the power and manoeuvrability of sovereign democratic states, the people to whom those states are accountable have lost power in turn. And as the power of electorates has ebbed away, so too has the power of each sovereign state to protect its ‘little people’ against the more predatory edges of globalisation.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the disjunction between the views of working-class people to the prospect of mass immigration, and the attitude of the middle and upper classes to the same phenomenon. The former group sees wages stagnate and living standards slump as competition for low-skilled jobs gets hotter and hotter. The latter, meanwhile, enjoys the benefits of price competition in the market for nannies and plumbers, not to mention the pleasant effect of housing scarcity on the value of their homes, all set off by a pleasant frisson of righteousness as they condemn the narrow-mindedness of the lumpenproletariat.
This class division is borne out by the data: a report published today by europhile think-tank Chatham House shows that lower socioeconomic class and education is a strong predictor of euroscepticism. Now, you could read that as a contemptuous write-off of Brexiteers as ageing, ignorant thickos; or you could begin to ask yourself why the poorer, older and less educated don’t feel the ‘liberal dream’ of EU federalism is working in their interests. Could it be less because they are old, thick or poor and more because of an instinctive recognition that the aims of the EU are against the interests of the working-class populations of nations across the EU?
Rafael Behr may sign wistfully at the high-flown ‘liberal’ ideals that inspired the European project, and look askance at the under-educated, vulgar little xenophobes that challenge its legitimacy and belief system. He may grumble about the waning attractiveness of a federal EU clearly inhabited by groups of proles all of whom are every bit as resistant to mass immigration and the end of nation states as those awful Sun readers in the UK. But in lamenting the return of nationalism he has missed the inextricable connections between patriotism, belonging, democracy and a working class that wields some measure of power in the direction of politics.
The dying of the nation state throws the working class to the wolves of globalisation. Resisting this is not xenophobic, but thanks to the blindness of bien-pensants like Behr it has been left to the xenophobes for too long.