The paradox of nationalism: the common denominator of radical right and radical left Euroscepticism

By Daphne Halikiopoulou, Kyriaki Nanou and Sofia Vasilopoulou

Radical right-wing and radical left-wing parties have consistently opposed the project of European integration and have succeeded not only in distinguishing themselves from mainstream parties on this dimension, but have also managed to mobilise voters in European Parliament elections and win considerable support. What can explain the strong Euroscepticism of radical parties of both the right and the left? Findings from studies of radical right and left-wing parties tend to stress differences in their origins and ideology. The shared ideology of radical right-wing parties is centred on nationalism.

These parties highlight the need for resistance against external threats to the nation often expressed by an ‘ethno-centric message’ (Hainsworth 2008) and tough policies on asylum and immigration (Mudde 1996, 2007; Mair & Mudde 1998). On the other hand, the shared ideology of radical left-wing parties includes ‘a rejection of the values of capitalism and the free market economy; the protection of collective economic and social rights in pursuit of social justice; and the idea of states working together to address shared concerns in support of internationalism’  (March & Mudde 2005). Therefore, conventionally, the defence of the nation tends to be associated with radical parties of the right whereas radical left-wing parties are associated with the promotion of internationalism. The argument we put forward contests this idea that radical right- and left-wing parties are so dissimilar that they take positions at opposite ends of the political spectrum across a range of issues.

Instead, we argue that radical parties share elements of nationalist ideology leading to a common eurosceptic stance. Radical left-wing opposition to EU integration is grounded in the very nationalist narratives to which in theory it is fundamentally opposed. Paradoxically, nationalism is the underlying feature that unites the radical right and the radical left, cross-cutting traditional alignments and mobilising support across the political spectrum. Radical parties voice common concerns distinct from their mainstream rivals, highlighting an important debate regarding different visions of the national interest.

Nationalism is the common denominator between the two party families; and it is the underlying reason why these parties adopt a negative position towards the EU. Nationalism and euroscepticism are central among radical parties independently of party competition and position in the party system. European integration is seen as a threat to the autonomy, unity and identity of the nation. On the one hand, that nationalism constitutes the common ideological basis of both party families and, on the other, the type of nationalism utilised differs depending on strategy – that is, the targeted constituencies and party politics.

Parties at both edges of the political systems in Europe agree on euroscepticism – not despite but because of their common fear regarding the erosion of national sovereignty. This fear is incorporated into a common nationalism among both party groups – with the radical right emphasising the ethnic aspects and the radical left focusing on the civic-territorial components. There is a common underlying cause of euroscepticism rooted in the idea of protection of national sovereignty. Therefore, radical party euroscepticism may be understood in terms of a clash between nationalists rather than a clash between nationalists and non-nationalists.

Radical right-wing parties interpret the maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity as the right of the nation to be homogeneous, and support the allocation of welfare based on ethnicity and culture as the criterion for national membership. Since class interest may only be pursued through the territorial framework of the nation-state (Breuilly 2011), the radical left also develops the need to annex nationalism. Parties of the radical left equate nation with class and express their nationalism in terms of the right to emancipation from great powers and opposition to capitalism and imperialism. Since the radical left focuses on class exploitation, when it annexes nationalism it radicalises it with strong class, anti-imperial, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment arguments. The idea of Europe is seen as undermining the autonomy, unity and identity of the nation whether that is seen through a predominantly ethnic (radical right) or predominantly civic (radical left) prism. Parties of the radical right oppose European integration, which they perceive as a threat to the nation’s cultural homogeneity; they espouse the civic components of nationalism but justify them on ethnic terms. On the other hand, radical left-wing parties are sceptical towards the EU as they perceive it to be a vehicle of great power intervention and imperialism and a threat to the territorial integrity of the nation-state. They espouse civic nationalism but tend to steer away from the ethnic components of nationalism.

We have tested this argument combining intensive case study analysis, tracing the link between nationalism and euroscepticism in Greece and France, with quantitative analysis of party manifestos across Europe. Our findings revealed that parties with higher levels of nationalism take more eurosceptic positions. There is an increasing party polarisation on aspects independent of the left–right dimension, including issues of cultural identity and European integration. Radical right- and left-wing parties side together on the axis measuring opposition to/support of European integration as well as on the dimension measuring levels of nationalism, whereas the distance between mainstream parties has substantially decreased.

Overall, the finding that party-based euroscepticism of the radical right and left is rooted in nationalism is interesting in the context of De Vries and Edwards’ (2009) findings that radical right- and left-wing parties can effectively sway citizens’ opinions against European integration. It is difficult to determine whether these parties reshape their positions in response to citizens’ pre-existing fears regarding the erosion of sovereignty and national identity, or, instead, whether their nationalistic – and eurosceptic – positions play a key role in shaping popular concerns. Regardless, in a current climate of economic crisis where parties of both the radical right and left are increasingly successful, the implications of the close link between nationalism and Euroscepticism for the European project are paramount.

The full article was published in the European Journal of Political Research (EJPR), Issue 54:1 (2012).

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