Identity Over Economy Drives Populists
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership and development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
The fall 2016 Marshall Memorial Fellowship program was unforgettable for many reasons: the insights into the workings of foreign governments, candid conversations with European political and thought leaders, and time spent with a cohort of accomplished and interesting peers. There were many lessons learned, but one in particular stood out in stark relief: that the percolations of populist nationalism on the continent must be addressed immediately and with vigor.
From Marine Le Pen to the AfD, the tides that led to Brexit and swept Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States are at work across Europe. The justification for these changes are often couched in the language of economics, that globalization has left some people behind and that the slow recovery since 2008 has caused many to believe that life for their children and grandchildren will, for the first time in generations, probably be materially worse than it is at present. Wealth is concentrated in the top 1 percent of society and the middle is hollowing out.
During time spent in Greece, Serbia, and Germany as part of the fellowship, it became clear that while economic concerns and the uneven concentrations of wealth are real issues, it is unlikely that the seeds of nationalism are solely nourished by economic woes. Rather, the problem appears to be rooted in an existential threat to national identities across Europe and, indeed, the wider Western world. Union requires a coming together, a blurring of lines and a smoothing over of divisions.
For the European Union to succeed in the long term, it is clear that a more complete coming together will be required. As this happens national identities will, without question, have to give up a certain amount of their strength in favor of creating a new, pan-European national spirit. The Greeks will become a little less Greek, the Germans a little less German, all in the interest of a deeper embrace.
As borders become more blurred, language will ultimately begin to change. As foreigners from outside of Europe are welcomed to help overcome the very real demographic crisis the continent is facing, the changes will only gain speed. The other will arrive and the old guard will cede some ground.
Majorities are loath to give up power, and understandably so — the unknown is frightening. However, what the EU needs now more than ever are thought leaders who can address the identity fears and concerns that are gripping Europe, while not giving ground with regard to integration and ultimate unification. The economic concerns held by the populations of Europe must be addressed as part of a long-term examination of the impacts of globalization.
That said, the more virulent nationalist politics of identity must be confronted with a firm, but not unconcerned, response. If the liberal Western tradition cannot own up to this very real issue and address it directly, it risks allowing the corrosion of the very metal of the post-war peace that both sides of the Atlantic have enjoyed for over 70 years.
E. Clark Copelin, a real estate developer in Atlanta, GA, is a Fall 2016 American Marshall Memorial Fellow
Photo credit: Kalispera Dell
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.