In studying the evolution of the European Union (EU), scholars and politicians alike have focused on its institutional side, or what Jürgen Habermas calls the “postnational constellation.” They examine the European Union as a supranational body—its integration, enlargement, and governance. But there is another side to the EU coin: the member states themselves. Recent studies have therefore paid more attention to creating a more “emotional narrative” of the European identity.
Member States in Transition
While the EU integration process has progressed rapidly, individual member states have undergone uncertain internal transitions. Each member remains a distinct nation-state, especially with respect to the identification of its citizens and the conception of legitimate political actors on the national level. Conversely, member states have lost several roles and functions within the framework of national politics. Common decision-making in domestic and legal affairs and the increase in economic ties that accompany integration have led to the weakening of national sovereignty.

In this volatile context, populist parties and their often charismatic leaders have emerged as political actors and entered the realm of competitive politics in Europe. Since the 1990s, relatively new populist parties have achieved double-digit percentages of the vote in general elections. In the last several years, some of these parties have established themselves in government and altered the agenda of center-right parties in Europe as a whole.

Why should such political parties be analyzed within the framework of the European Union? One answer is that they have returned political debates to the national realm and set back core elements of liberal democracy. Beginning with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the European project has been depicted as an institution to curb nationalism and avoid the perils of future wars. However, counter-references to nation-based identities are gaining importance despite the wave of economic and political integration. The process of supranationalization in the decision-making process has been accompanied by political actors striving for a re-nationalization of attitudes.
Right-wing Populist Parties
Issues related to national identity are among the top campaign issues for right-wing populist leaders across Europe, such as Jörg Haider of Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen of France, Pia Kjaersgaard of Denmark, Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands, Umberto Bossi of Italy, Christoph Blocher of Switzerland, and Filip Dewinter of Belgium. In particular, the topic most closely linked to the construction of national identities is immigration. Populist parties claim to preserve cultural identity (most importantly, national identity) in order to protect their constituents from external cultural threats that are ascribed to “foreigners.” The populist strategy is mainly concerned with addressing fears and resentments by offering scapegoats. They paint a gloomy picture of a multicultural future, and the solutions that are offered to solve different societal problems may be described as a grab bag of policies intended to maintain a pure cultural identity.

The theoretical concept behind national identity frequently rests on the idea of a homogenous group traceable in history, coupled with modern challenges such as immigration. National identities have often been created by the welldocumented use of the contrast between “us” and “them.” In compliance with this model, populist politicians frame politics in the oversimplified formula of an “us versus them” and attempt to draw a sharp line distinguishing cultures.

To build an “us” as a nation-based group, one must first identify which groups are targeted by populist parties as “them.” The use of slogans such as “eigen volk eerst” (own people first), “Österreich zuerst” (Austria first), and “les francais d’abord” (the French first) in populist rhetoric points to national cultural supremacy that tries to crack down on immigrant workers, refugees, and minorities. “The boat is full” is one of the catchphrases used in policies that are hostile to non-citizens, especially asylum seekers and guest workers. Anti-Semitic statements and racist actions against African immigrants are a crucial part of the populist agenda. Several parties have even suggested that the existence of foreigners threatens the Western lifestyle and democratic values. The election campaigns of Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People’s Party) in 2001 and Pim Fortuyn in 2002 linked “foreigners” with “Muslim” people, framing the issue as “foreign infiltration.” In welfare states like France and Austria, populists accuse immigrants and asylum seekers of abusing welfare benefits.

In this climate, the notion of Western culture is becoming a factor in creating political differences. One finds well-established references to Western values closely connected with Christianity while discovering xenophobic and particularly anti-Islamic prejudices. Even Samuel Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations” has been cited to legitimatize the discursive construction of national and Western-based identities. National identities are no longer founded solely on national references and symbols but on crossnational ideas captured under the notion of a “Western civilization.” An illustration of this expansion is the acceptance of the hanging of the cross in the public sphere (notably schools) as a cultural symbol, versus the identification of women wearing head scarves in public with religious expression.

A problematic feature of this development is what the German political philosopher Carl Schmitt called “identical democracy.” In the 1920s, the concept described a strong leader expressing the interests of the population while attacking political parties and pluralism in society. In the modern day, leaders present themselves as representatives for the population as a whole, using the slogan “we are all in the same boat” to describe the situation. The metaphor mutes differences within the population; the line between those who belong and those who do not is based on cultural identities and often linked with the political notion of “patriotism.”

Patriotism is based on various constructions that create a cleavage between “us” and “them.” “Brussels bureaucrats” (EU officials), opposition politicians, critical journalists, and intellectuals alike have been labeled the “bad others.” The intellectuals, in particular, have been charged with being unpatriotic simply for criticizing decisions made by populist parties and governments. Under the rubric of patriotism, different views and interests have been, and will continue to be, delegitimized. Patriotic stress on national identities not only interferes with the European integration process, but in fact impacts the democratic standards of individual states. Observers of right-wing populism already speak of a transformation from open to closed societies and warn of authoritarian tendencies. “We are all in the same boat” serves right-wing supporters as a metaphor that diminishes the legitimacy of diversity and pluralism by emphasizing one-sided “common” grounds. As the emphasis on the virtues of an “us” (the nation) model becomes stronger, topics that address socioeconomic inequalities and pluralistic conceptions of democracy are more readily suppressed. As the common is stressed over the different, the appeal to “whole peoples” displaces conflicts at hand. Intermediary institutions and procedures of negotiation, in turn, become largely disregarded. Space for deliberation and pluralistic interests decreases and eventually disappears. The two sides of this development are the devaluation of political bodies designated to deliberate conflicts on the one hand, and the increased stress on a plebiscite model in which one rules with the people against the establishment, on the other.
The European Right
Right-wing populist parties have greatly altered the political map of Europe. Until 2000, the vast majority of national governments were dominated by Social Democrats. Since then, conservative parties such as the Christian Democrats have become major players in public office. The reason for this trend is twofold: first, by accepting populist parties as coalition partners, conservative parties rendered their platform of radical opposition acceptable, and populist parties in turn mediated the conservatives’ regaining of power. This development effectively moved the populist parties from the sideline to the center of national political power within a few years, and has been the case in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Italy.

Second, this type of domestic shift in government was also caused by the changing composition of EU bodies (such as the Council of Ministers) and its large impact on EU politics. The example of Austria is illustrative, where a single incident led EU member states to act against the inclusion of a right-wing populist party in a national government. When the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) gained 27 percent of the vote in the general elections of 1999, the Austrian People’s Party, which came in third in the elections, formed a coalition government with the victorious but internationally illreputed party. The heads of 14 EU member states criticized the FPO for failing to meet the standards of the European Union with respect to its European values, referring to its Nazi past and treatment of minorities. They imposed sanctions on the new Austrian government, downgrading contacts with the Austrian government to the level of diplomats and refusal to support Austrian applicants for posts within international organizations. The sanctions were lifted on the basis of the so-called Report of Wise Men. Later, however, when populist right-wing governments came to power in Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark, the EU member states largely remained silent; this may be seen as a clear sign that the populist right-wingers have formed a critical mass and penetrated the core of the European Union.
Accounting for Rising National Populism
To a certain extent, the European Union is the source of rising national populism. Granted, a phenomenon like right-wing populism does not have a single explanation, as it occurs within different political systems; non-EU states such as Switzerland and Norway also possess relatively strong populist parties. Nevertheless, there is evidence that such domestic developments go hand in hand with the perception of Europeanization. The link between the European integration process and the rise of right-wing parties may be much stronger than is admitted in scholarly studies or in statements made by both pro- and anti-European politicians.

There are several factors that help explain the rise of populist parties and right-leaning governments. Populist parties often offer very simple solutions to complex problems. For example, right-wing parties claim that the political elite in “Brussels”—a catchword for EU-centrism—are responsible for everything that is unpopular and that it is a burden to their constituents. It must be recognized, however, that the seeds of EU-bashing fall on fertile ground, and that the fertile ground has been well-sown by right-wing parties.

In academic literature, one approach to explaining the success of right-wing populism has drawn on ideas of social change and modernization. According to this view, despite some recent efforts toward a European Social Charter and European Draft Constitution, the grand political design of Europe has been very much focused on the idea of an economic and monetary union. European values, insofar as they exist, still depend on economic measures and institutions. At the same time, however, trade liberalization and fiscal austerity have forced individual member states to scale back the benefits of a generous, Keynesian welfare state. The scaling back has caused an increase in social fragmentation and greater economic gaps within the population. Although economic integration does provide new opportunities for people—such as economic and educational mobility—it also leads to challenges and much anxiety, especially among undereducated people. These elements have contributed to mounting tensions within society, and as is likely, to the gradually spreading skepticism toward a single Europe.

A second approach targets the identity issue itself. The “four freedoms of movement” that are outlined in European treaties shape how European citizens experience space and the borders. But shifting boundaries can cause an identity crisis. It appears that many Europeans have been experiencing “Europeanization” and “globalization” more as a loss of a sense of identity and belonging than as an opportunity to create a cross-national “European soul.” In such circumstances, nationalism’s electoral success seems inevitable.

Moreover, two aspects related to the European Union can be identified in the growing relevance of identity politics, one issue-oriented and the other procedural. The delegation of sovereignty and economic capacities to a supranational body—namely the Commission and intergovernmental bodies such as the Council of Ministers—and the loss of flexibility in policymaking have forced politicians and political parties to seek alternative strategies. In this new administrative landscape, distributive policy measures are left to the member states but the member states must decrease benefits to meet the requirements of the stability pact. This double bind facilitates the agenda of identity politics, which does not appear burden the budget, yet helps at the ballot box.

Meanwhile, the procedural argument points to the question of legitimacy. Since EU institutions and their representatives primarily derive legitimacy from the member states and not through pan-European elections, politicians usually direct their rhetoric at national policies and sentiments. The only exception to this tendency is the European Parliament, whose members are elected directly. But here, too, campaigns are dominated by member state-based issues. As a result, political parties and their leaders are eager to avoid responsibility for unpopular decisions made in Brussels. Both pro- and anti-European parties alike blame the European Union for decisions even when they themselves play a large role in the decision-making process.
Turkish Dilemma
The debate over Turkey’s admission into the European Union has revealed future challenges to the member states. While Turkey recently became an “application country,” official talks have not yet begun because of the complications of admitting a large country with a large Muslim population. Since right-wing populist parties do not yet form a block in the European Parliament, they have yet to mobilize opposition to Turkey’s membership. However, Christianity, linked to Western values and culture, could lead to cross-national mobilization in the name of Western European identity. A secular Turkey could also be used by right-wing leaders to mount even more emotional campaigns at the national level; some political observers expect an intensified discussion of Turkey's membership during the European Parliament election campaigns in spring 2004.

Larger conservative parties, mainly the Group of European People’s Parties, have already signaled opposition to Turkey’s membership based on religious and cultural values. The disputes over whether God and Christianity ought to be inserted into the draft of the European constitution can be seen as a strong indicator of this trend. In contrast, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads a center-right government, endorsed the inclusion of Turkey, Russia, and Israel in the European Union during his tenure as the rotating EU president during the second half of 2003. This call for a far-reaching enlargement could only spur further discussions of European identity and aggravate the division between “us” and “them.”

The cultural identity agenda could easily spread from the national to the European level. This emerging nationalistic European identity, tied mostly to Christianity and anti-Muslim attitudes, may turn out to be quite different from what European leaders have been advocating, namely a political Europe consisting of European citizens who support the legitimacy of European governance.