ON THE FRONTLINE: Populism and White Nationalism in Europe

ON THE FRONTLINE: Populism and White Nationalism in Europe

Catarina Kinnvall

Across Europe we see how an increasing number of people are turning to nationalist, xenophobic, and ultra-conservative far-right movements and parties. Behind this seems to be a belief that such configurations will somehow solve their political, economic, cultural and ideological uncertainties by providing simplified solutions to complex questions. At the heart of these movements and parties lies a much more sinister form of emotional governance, however. A governance that cannot be separated from imperial pasts, fascist and anti-democratic ideas and values and which has as its foundation the preservation of whiteness as its key concern.

It is a nationalism not directed outwards towards other countries, but inwards towards national or (by proxy) EU establishments, towards feminists or proponents of multiculturalism, and towards migrants and minority populations. Increasingly, and with severe consequences, migrants and minorities are portrayed as security risks – as dangerous beings who threaten national and cultural identity where, in particular, Muslim minority groups are depicted as ‘invaders’ of ‘foreign cultures’, praying to other gods and threatening the majority communities’ ways of life. It is within this context that the so-called ‘migration crisis’ has been used to substantiate a ‘race to the bottom’ by introducing strict border controls and citizenship rituals, thus justifying a dangerous illusion that ethnic diversity is a problem to be solved.

However, let me be clear. It is not ethnic diversity that is the problem. The entire idea that diversity can be a problem rests on a belief that there were once original inhabitants who had a legitimate claim to a particular nationhood, religion and culture. A claim which disregards how imperialism and the idea of Europe always rested on colonial power and practice in which whiteness was as much a justifying ideology as an imagined source of authenticity. Whiteness promises a sense of unity, mastery, self-achievement, and absolute humanity. It is a political ideology that has as its core myth the homogenous nation – a romanticised and gendered version of the homeland and homeland culture.

This is where the politics of memory come in – especially as related to far-right populist and centre-right movements – where collective emotions such as love for the nation, or hate, fear and contempt for the stranger other become central in the narrative construction of collective identities. The institutional and the emotional are here brought together through racist narratives of ‘imaginary protection’ from the immigrant ‘other’, often manifest in fetishism for ‘pure’ identities. In the hands of populist leaders, it is about channelling and governing emotions in its broadest sense for enclosing anxiety, defusing anger, relieving guilt and fulfilling illusory needs for pride, attachment and desire. Imagined and reinvented symbols, memories, myths and heritage are here given new political significance, which seems to resonate with an audience beset by securing its everyday existence. It is about imagining a secure past in which nostalgia is used to guide future action. This entails a fictional narrative of past greatness, transmitted to new generations in search of answers to their own anxieties, while it simultaneously points to those who have taken this ‘greatness’ away – the establishment, the immigrants, the Muslims.

Far-right populists respond to this logic of insecurity by providing a picture of the state (and the nation) as stable, uniform and strong, where those deemed not to belong are portrayed as enemies – as homogenous others. This implies that when such forces are in power, as in Turkey, Hungary or Poland, they are able to colonise and occupy the state. It is here we must talk about the imaginations or fantasies that lay the ground for a psychological insecurity that seems to characterise a significant portion of European voters – what I refer to as ontological insecurity – and how political parties and movements have been able to use such emotions and feelings to sell their populist messages. It is an ontological insecurity related to ideas of particular European, British or Danish values and traditions that must be defended from ‘cultural infection’. However, it is also a way to justify white nationalism and racist prejudice, where imagined threats against the welfare state and against political, economic and physical security more generally become manifest in a fear of strangers and those viewed as different.

It is hence no coincidence that far right populist and some centre-right parties and movements have both biological and cultural racism as a rhetorical source of their imaginary nations. Whiteness is not only the saviour of an imperial past, but it is also closely related to a prevailing set of masculinity norms where heteronormative values often characterise the political rhetoric. Not only does such a rhetoric specifically appeal to a male electorate (even if we see more women joining these parties and movements), but it is also used to curtail the rights of marginalised groups more generally. Hence, we should not be surprised that anti-feminist values often go hand in hand with demands to forbid the veil or other specific items of clothing associated with particular groups. The unveiling of the Muslim woman is thus a strategy closely connected to hegemonic masculinity and whiteness.

Even if the EU is often used as a punching sack in these stories or narratives, as the Brexit debate is evidence of, it is interesting to note how anti-EU populists have in many ways changed tactics in terms of their relationship with the EU. Instead of consistently maintaining that their respective societies should leave the EU, we see how many populist European parties are set on reforming the EU from within. This is what makes the European parliament election next year such an important issue for all EU citizens as many populist parties see a possibility to increase their power. The criticism against the EU has grown in relation to three developments: the austerity measures after the euro crisis 2010; the so-called ‘migration crisis’ of 2015-2016, and the latest confrontations with ‘illiberal’ governments accused of undermining the legal system, such as Hungary, Poland, and now Italy.

From having portrayed the EU as mainly an external enemy opposed to the nation and the will of the people, increasingly the debate has been about migration where the EU is accused of having been unable to prevent migrants from entering Europe. To this can be added an imagined fear that multiculturalism and ethnic diversity will weaken the ‘own’ ethnic community and, as a result, a demand for a stronger Fortress Europe with more obstacles put in place to prevent migration. ‘The boat is full’, ‘migrants are a threat to our culture’, become narrative shortcuts to a fantasy in which immigrants and minority communities are narrated as not being ‘proper’ nationals, as ‘stealing jobs’, as ‘bogus’ economic migrants, ‘criminal foreigners’ and ‘welfare parasites’.

This is where we can talk about the far-right populist vision of Europe, which rests upon an anti-EU rhetoric at the same time as its proponents want to enter EUs corridors in order to take away obstacles to their own power – especially constitutional obstacles. They want to control state institutions and limit freedom (and critique) from civil society, media and universities. They are, more than anything, critical to EU institutions that have as their mandate the ability for national governments to break EU laws where especially the EU commission is portrayed as non-elected bureaucrats whose power should be limited. Here the EU commission is often seen as a spokesperson for globalisation rather than for national control of the economy – that the struggle is no longer between left and right, but between globalists and patriots.

Not only do they propagate more protectionist politics but also that national governments should take back control and sovereignty by resisting common values in EU external action policies. To advocate in favour of agreements with Russia, China, Israel and Egypt in terms of energy and investments, even when this runs counter to EU’s interest, and by using social media to spread fabrication and lies are not only central to this strategy, but crucial for maximising the particular emotional governance at heart of populist politics. It is more than anything a white nationalism that is propagated, sold and provided as a remedy to an anxious European population in fear of an uncertain future.

This is also why it is so important for centrist democratic parties in Europe to turn away from alliances with far-right fascist movements and provide alternative narratives of Europe, the EU and of diverse, heterogenous communities. To make democracy viable again, the myth of white nationalism must be dismantled and prevented from gaining power at any level of society.


Catarina Kinnvall is Professor in the Department of Political Science, Lund University.

Image Credit: Carl Ridderstråle This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.