BERLIN – In his final address to the European Parliament in 1995, then-French President François Mitterrand, whose failing health was evident to all, found the following indelible words to characterize Europe's great scourge: "Le nationalisme, c'est la guerre!"
Nationalism and war were the defining experiences of Mitterrand's political career, and he was referring not only to the dreadful past – the first half of the twentieth century, with its two World Wars, dictatorships, and the Holocaust. He viewed nationalism as the greatest future threat to European peace, democracy, and security.
Although nationalist war was tearing apart Yugoslavia at the time, few of those who listened to Mitterrand in Strasbourg that day could have imagined that, 21 years later, nationalism would be experiencing a Europe-wide revival. But nationalist politicians whose declared goal is to destroy Europe's unity and peaceful integration have now won in major democratic elections and referenda.
The United Kingdom's decision in June to leave the European Union marked a momentary climax for resurgent nationalism, but one can also see it on the march in Hungary, Poland, and France, where Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front have been gaining strength in the run-up to next year's presidential election. How could it have come to this, given Europe's first-hand experience with nationalism's destructive power in the twentieth century, when it caused millions of deaths and devastated the entire continent?
For starters, the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global recession are widely, and justifiably, seen as a massive failure on the part of the "establishment." Anti-elite sentiment continues to erode intra-European solidarity and mutual trust, and the EU has become mired in a prolonged bout of slow growth and high unemployment.
Across the West, a general feeling of decline has taken hold, owing to the shift in global wealth and power toward Asia. The United States has withdrawn geopolitically, while Russia has revived its great-power ambitions to challenge Western hegemony and values. Worldwide, there is growing discontent with globalization, digitization, and free trade, accompanied by a slow shift toward protectionism. Europeans, in particular, seem to have forgotten that protectionism and nationalism are inextricably linked – one cannot be had without the other.
Finally, there is a generalized fear of the unknown, as many countries confront issues relating to inflows of foreigners – whether refugees or migrants – and internal changes brought about by the increasing economic and political empowerment of women and minorities. These developments, which have coincided with the larger-scale transformations and ruptures in Europe that began in 1989, have triggered fears that establishment political parties and democratic institutions have failed to address.
As always, when fear runs rampant in Europe, people seek salvation in nationalism, isolationism, ethnic homogeneity, and nostalgia – the "good old days," when supposedly all was well in the world. Never mind that the bloody, chaotic past was anything but perfect. Nationalist leaders and their supporters today are living in a "post-empirical" reality, where the truth and experience have no purchase.
All of this reflects a profound change in how Europeans see themselves. After two World Wars and during the Cold War, European integration was a no-brainer. But the shared understanding that unity delivers peace, prosperity, and democracy has been weakened over time by persistent crises, and it could now be lost completely unless it is reinforced by a forward-looking message.
It is absurd to think that Europe's historic nation-states are an answer to the globalized political, economic, and technological realities of the twenty-first century. If Europeans believe that, then they must be willing to pay the price for less integration, in the form of declining prospects and new dependencies. The most important global decisions in this century will not be made democratically in Europe, but unilaterally in China or elsewhere.
Europe's languages and cultures have a long history. But, lest we forget, its nation-states are a more recent development, especially outside of Western Europe. It would be a grave mistake to think that they represent Europe's "end of history." On the contrary, if the nation-state model wins out over integration, Europeans will pay a high price in this century. How European countries fare in the future is a question that can be answered only collectively, not on the basis of some individually defined national interest, as in the nineteenth century.
Moreover, with Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa nearby, Europe lives in a difficult and challenging neighborhood. It does not enjoy the American luxury of having its security guaranteed by geography. Rather, its safety and prosperity must constantly be defended through politics, which is necessarily a joint effort.
The central question for Europe's future is how much power the EU needs in order to guarantee peace and security for its citizens. That, too, can be addressed only collectively. What is already clear is that Europeans will need not just more Europe, but also a different and more powerful Europe.
Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2016