Identity politics: Pandora’s box of Europe

    The revival of the “us versus them” discourse can in due course severely damage the EU. That significantly matters for the global order, regional peace and security as Europe is hardly stable at the moment.

    Cultural nationalist discourses and economic protectionism have regained a mainstream position in the politics of many states across the world, altering social perceptions of issues ranging from globalization to diversity and difference. The results of a number of recent general elections in the world reflect this trend since parties that combine identity-based nationalist rhetoric, such as anti-immigration and anti-establishment seem to profit most from the current societal changes. The elections of conservative leaders such as Donald Trump in the U.S., Boris Johnson in the U.K., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and critical referendums such as Brexit in Britain, are some of the prevalent cases. More specifically, in the last five years, all of the EU’s big six – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland – have faced complex challenges and severe internal divisions that would have been hard to imagine before.

    While some analysts might suggest that the troubles of Britain or other European countries are unlikely to be unsurmountable, these dominant European states are now split down the middle over the European question. These cracks represent undoubtedly a new sign of the resurgence of identity politics that goes well beyond attitudes toward the EU. In all probability, while the issues seem to be distinctive in each country, it is a well-known fact that events in one country often spill across borders by changing the political mood elsewhere. For instance, the Syrian refugee crisis in many countries across Europe was used by Leave campaigners as a catalyst to motivate British people to vote to leave the EU in 2016. Hence, the referendum staged in Scotland in 2014 had inspired Catalonians to demand an independence referendum.

    Although these events highlight the interconnected nature of European politics, the danger of the domino effect is not yet well acknowledged by many EU leaders. The revival of the “us versus them” discourse can in due course severely damage the EU. That significantly matters for the global order, regional peace and security as Europe is hardly stable at the moment. Nationalist-populist governments are currently in power in Britain, Hungary and Poland and were part of the coalition government in Austria before their leader was caught up in a video scandal. The right-wing nationalism has also performed strongly in elections throughout Europe, such as in France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands, and it is making gains in Spain.

    The most contentious event among all, however, the Brexiters’ victory – if it is finally achieved – will come at the price of a bitterly divided country and Europe as it has the potential to spread to elsewhere. It is, therefore, important to discuss and understand the complex sociopolitical and economic issues that the new trend of identity politics has brought to European politics. One likely explanation for the rise of the identity politics of nationalists is related to the crisis of the nation-state model due to hyper-globalization. The debate on this issue often turns into a fierce one, as it points out the end of the long-lasting legacy of liberal internationalism in global politics.

    In contrast to the liberal tradition which has been dominating the global political economy since WWII, it is now discussed by some observers that the increasing levels of economic, cultural and political interconnectedness between different individuals and states has distorted the balance that the nation-state is supposed to oversee between a cultural identity (the nation) and a political entity (the state). The emerging far-right populist parties in Europe and elsewhere are opposing the process of globalization. They denounce the latter as a multi-layered threat, which includes the economy (“immigrants take our jobs”), culture (“they do not respect our values”), and politics (“the sovereignty of the nation-state is at risk”). Hence, they assert that the world currently faces new challenges that are beyond the issues of the political organizations of nation-states and social classes.

    It should also be noted that despite their diversity, the majority of the emerging far-right wing political parties in Europe and elsewhere share a common claim to defend the “losers of globalization.” It is true that the 2008 global financial crash and the subsequent recession shattered the illusions invested in liberal democracy and globalization. Many of its critics who are now spearheading the recent wave of populist discourse found this opportunity unmissable. They framed their discourse in a way that the west had got it wrong, and wrong on a scale not seen since the Depression in the 1930s. The benefits of globalization, for instance, were portrayed as being reaped only by the few at the expense of the majority.

    While this is true in a sense, populists do not stop there and go beyond their criticism of the failure of the capital system. They feed into the minds and emotions of individuals by reshaping their consciousness with a new bleak picture that it is identity politics rather than the critique that financial capitalism is the cause of all evils. If we are to make a more peaceful and just society, we need to address the renewed appeal of identity politics and the global issues attached to this discourse as they are currently shaking the foundations of the global order.

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