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Oct 18, 2013 | 13:30 GMT

The Rise of Europe's Nationalist Parties

The economic crisis in Europe is opening doors for the rise in popularity of nationalist parties across the Continent. These parties challenge Europe’s traditional elites and pose a concrete threat for the process of economic and political integration in the European Union.

Nationalism in Europe is not new. It's a natural byproduct of the Continent's geography, which produced pockets of communities that for centuries were isolated from one another and developed a deep sense of belonging in their native land. After World War II, Europe tried to institutionalize a more continental sense of belonging, culminating in the creation of the European Union. The EU offered prosperity and the promise of peace. But the economic crisis has weakened the foundation upon which the bloc rests.

In the current context, nationalism consists of a set of ideas that seek to defend a country's "national identity" against external threats, most notably immigration and EU integration. 

In Western Europe, a key concern for nationalists is Islam. Most nationalist parties, including the National Front in France and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, highlight the Continent's Christian identity and its supposed incompatibility with Muslim customs and beliefs. In Eastern Europe, the main concern is minority populations. For example, Hungary's Jobbik party connects the Roma minorities with crime, while Ataka in Bulgaria criticizes the country's ethnic and religious minorities.

Most nationalist parties criticize what they believe to be the abuse of the welfare state by minorities and want to restrict their access to the labor market. The Sweden Democrats or the Danish People’s Party, for example, claim that the welfare state is at risk of disappearing due to an influx of immigrants. 

These parties also believe their countries surrender too much sovereignty to the European Union. The National Front considers that France should leave the eurozone, while the UK Independence Party believes that Britain should leave the European Union. Other parties accept EU membership but refuse to expand it. 

Finally, nationalists strongly criticize the political establishment and attract people who have become disenchanted with the traditional elites. They are broadening their messaging and are becoming increasingly successful at presenting themselves as acceptable alternatives to mainstream parties. The recent rise in the popularity of the National Front in France is a clear example of this trend.

Most of these parties are not linked to violence, but there are some exemptions. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has been associated with physical attacks against immigrants and the recent killing of an anti-fascist activist. In Hungary, Jobbik has been linked to attacks against the Roma community. 

Europe will remain a fertile ground for nationalism in the coming years. Unemployment remains at record high levels, and violence in northern Africa and the Middle East is leading to an increase in the arrival of refugees in Europe. Additionally, high unemployment in the European periphery is leading to growing emigration of EU citizens to countries in the core.

In the short term, the rise in popularity of nationalist parties will make moderate parties adopt nationalist agendas, thus hardening immigration laws or questioning some aspects of EU integration. In the long run, nationalist parties could take part in coalition governments in certain countries. This will pose a key challenge for them, as most of these parties have generally been in the opposition and lack real executive experience. In any case, their efforts will focus on weakening the European Union's institutional foundations, particularly the free movement of people, goods and services across the Continent.

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